A few months ago, when working on the Annual Report (AR) of the CSI division of one of South Africa’s largest and oldest companies, we couldn’t help reflecting on how Annual Reports differ – and how much more interesting, varied and insightful a great CSI Annual Report is from a traditional company Annual Report.
Traditional Annual Reports can make for pretty dry reading – you’ve got your letter from the CEO, various departmental reports, all written in isolation and, of course, your financials, which supposedly give an overview of the health of the company … and then, if you’re lucky, some vision for the future, perhaps a quotation or two. The chief intended audience is shareholders and potential future shareholders. It’s a factual and informative piece – nothing wrong with that, but the format just isn’t ideal for the CSI report.
Modern CSI Annual Reports should be anything but dry. Firstly, you’re writing for a far broader audience than your traditional AR. It’s not just shareholders you seek to inform, but the whole CSI ‘ecosystem’ – that is, members of the public, government, NGOs you have worked with, academics, development experts, and a whole host of unknown stakeholders – including staff and executives in your very own company. All of these people will closely scrutinise the Annual Report to assess the value of what you do.
What do readers look for in a great CSI Annual Report?
My view is that real CSI readers are looking for facts and they’re looking for insights. They’re not going to be fobbed off with marketing jargon and a glossy overview of the year. They want hard facts and figures, but they also want a sense of how your work fits in with the entire socio-economic landscape of the country. They want to understand your thinking, your strategy. Why do you fund whom you do? Do the partners you work with deliver value for money? What have you learned over the last twelve months – it can’t all have been plain sailing. What will you do differently going forward?
They also want to know whether, in the long run, you’re adding value to both the society from which the company draws its business, and the company itself.
We know that the NGO or CSI Annual Report is a requirement for all registered NGOs and big companies, and that they must adhere to minimum reporting standards. But over and above the minimum requirements, a great CSI report should touch on the macro picture, bridging the divide between the individual company and the socio-economic realities of South Africa.
There will have been activities which may seem strange to mainstream business – a way of seeing things which is imbedded into a true social development practitioner. You can’t touch it, you just know it when you see it. There is a sense of knowledge that comes with experience – meetings with community activists, perhaps, or traditional leaders, and, if you’re wise, with government figures, as effective CSI will always take into account government plans and strategies. These meetings and discussions feed into the total CSI strategy, which may comprise four-fifths listening, in its early stages. There will also be honest reflection on lessons learned along the way, and how you intend to build these lessons into your strategy in the year ahead.
When we worked closely with Old Mutual Foundation on their Annual Report, we had to ensure that all the traditional elements were there, and then some. I have to thank the Head of the Foundation, Ms Fikile Kuhlase, who is a visionary in social development and a true leader; she grants collaborative freedom to the people she works with while demanding a clear rationale for the choices we make. The whole report had to be packaged in a way that anyone from the expert to the layman could pick it up and derive value from it.
This meant including sections on
- a broad overview of the CSI division, its vision and mission or aspirations;
- a letter from the CEO, giving the year’s highlights, hopes and aspirations;
- An overview by the CSI Manager of Head of the Department, Foundation etc.
- operational details on all programmes run during the year;
- the financial statement, with all relevant facts and figures;
- overall strategy – your key principles, goals and methodologies;
- highlights of the year – how lives were changed or communities improved;
- lessons learned, and strategy going forward.
And of course the whole thing had to look and feel like a dream – beautiful pictures, inviting pull-out quotes and lively, thought-provoking ideas that would really engage the reader.
I have since heard that this particular Annual Report is now used as a source of information for both internal and external teams, informing, showcasing and making their work known to the 30 000-plus staff members of the entire company. That is what an Annual Report should do. It should remain alive for the full year. When a client orders more copies of their Annual Report just before the end of the year, that’s an indication of a successful publication, put together by a team that knows CSI and the power of excellent reporting!
Old Mutual Foundation has already commissioned us to put together their second Annual Report – a fact that speaks volumes.
CSI Annual Reports have to move with the times. They need to retain the essential elements of a traditional Annual Report, but add the substance that makes you you. They also need to reflect the company’s values in ways that are tangible and meaningful. They’re a source of insight for a broad swathe of readers, and act as a crucial mirror to the company and to society.
That one report carries a lot on its shoulders. Make sure yours is up to the task!
If you’re considering modernising your Annual Report, or even just your standard reporting, give our reporting team in the GivenGroup Foundation a call or an email on firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject ‘We need help with our CSI or Standard Annual Report’. Our trained executives will be in touch to help you put together a riveting 21st century CSI Annual Report that speaks to more than just boards and bosses.
CSRNEWS Africa: Thinking that moves.