When it comes to developing a CSR programme we all know that there's only question to answer: Why?
Ok, so you want to effect social change, but in what specific areas, to what end and who will benefit? You certainly need to be honest with yourself: are you doing it to feel good, to look good or to improve the bottom line? Of course it's usually a combination of these and other factors, and the simplicity of the initial question soon disappears under a complex array of inter-related objectives, confounding factors and pressure from different views around the organisation.
Developing a CSR programme has to be more than just a tick-box procedure. It needs clear aims and goals to ensure that the time and money invested really do make a positive social impact. But how do you then justify the claims you make about its success?
Setting out your objectives with complete honesty and lack of ambiguity is critical when you're evaluating your programme. Are you trying to facilitate change in the participants? If so, how will you measure that change? Perhaps you want to create ambassadors for your brand. Great, but what precisely do you want them to do? How will you know when they’re doing their job, and who do you want them to influence?
So your goals need to be clear but also realistic. When I was a primary school teacher back in the day it was difficult to think that I could make a difference in one lesson: one hour of one day in one week in one term in one year. So you break it down into change that you can effect within the limitations you're set. As a teacher that means focusing on particular letters or sounds, developing an understanding of the properties of three particular shapes, or how to make marks on paper with charcoal and chalk.
For your CSR programme the limitations include your budget and a range of other factors such as your location or the timing of your annual report. But also your brand, your core purpose as a business, and your field of influence. You only have a limited opportunity to engage with your target audience so you do it in a way that most resonates with your brand to have the maximum impact.
So setting limits on your objectives doesn't mean limiting your ambition. It means maximising the opportunities for genuine change.
Once you’ve identified your objectives, you then need to understand the means by which they are achieved. It's not enough to pick out a sample of metrics (for example, how many people took part or awareness levels about a selection of topics) and gather data from before and after your CSR programme.
That’s valuable, yes, but you need to go further; to understand the desired impact and isolate the influences that your programme can realistically bring about. In doing so you have to be honest with yourself (again) and remember that your participants are subject to a range of other influences. What you initially perceive to be your impact might actually be due to anything from the weather on the day to the free swimming lessons at the local pool.
Isolating the influence of different factors, and attributing causality, can be achieved through statistical techniques (building regression models, key driver analysis). It can also be achieved through triangulation of evidence: looking at the issue from different angles, gleaning evidence from different sources, and making sure it all fits together. Ideally you would look more widely than the immediate beneficiaries of the programme to those who are more peripheral in terms of the intervention, but absolutely central in terms of the desired impact. This might be parents of the young people involved in a programme, residents or businesses in the local community, or those who are involved in delivery – and that might include you. It also makes sense to test your evidence with a logic model: thinking through your channels of influence to test that your intervention can genuinely lead to impact.
Back to a single question, or a simple evaluation principle: does your approach allow you to demonstrate that impacts can be attributed to your activity? To answer this, you’ll need to be clear about your goals, your limits and your and others’ sphere of influence. A strong, focused evaluation will tell you what’s working, how you made a difference, and enable you to make more credible social impact claims. You may not be able to say you’re saving the world, but you could justifiably claim that your brand, people and resources played a crucial role in shifting behaviours and possibly altered the course of someone’s life.