Monday, April 4, 2011

Inflating community impacts

Once again, the clarity of sustainability reports often leaves me with more questions than they answer. I was reviewing AT&T's 2009 report for a client benchmarking project I am working on, and came to their section on Community Involvement. AT&T has 282,720 employees, but the Company records volunteers including retirees, and notes that there are 325,000 volunteers in total. AT&T has more volunteers than it has employees! (Incidentally, 325,000 was the number that AT&T reported also in its 2008 report). Additionally, AT&T records a total of 8.5 million hours volunteering in the community for the year 2009.  8.5 million hours means that every single employee in the company volunteers for 2.5 hours every month. This is possible but it's not likely. What we are not told is what proportion of the total volunteers is represented by retirees, and what proportion of the total hours volunteered was actually volunteered by employees. Did any current employees actually spend volunteer time in the community? There is no contact point for queries listed in the report, so if any AT&T people are reading this blog, I would appreciate being enlightened.

As a general point, I do not believe that recording retiree volunteer hours combined with employee hours is appropriate. Just as adding in volunteer hours by employees' family members, friends, friends of friends, neighbors or even local golf club members is equally inappropriate. A sustainability report including community investment should specifically focus on identifying employeee community involvement, and record the numbers accordingly. This is important information for stakeholders.

If a company includes others in its community programs, in essence, this is a good thing. Providing retirees with a framework in which they can volunteer is positive and may well serve to enhance the quality of life of retirees as well as strengthen the local community fabric. Including employee families in community programs is positive as this may provide emotional support and positive family experiences about the workplace for employees.  It makes sense for a company to want to share this in a sustainability report - it's a part of their total impact - but I would prefer to see the numbers separately.

Otherwise it looks as though a company is inflating its community impact. 
Now why would a company want to do that?  

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainabilty Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices  Contact me via  on Twitter or via my business website  (BeyondBusiness, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)


Anonymous said...

The more pertinent question would be "why waste time documenting volunteer work"?

It's rather obvious that the biggest community impact a company can make is NOT charity, but rather the role its own product and services make.

AT&T should focus on making communication simpler easier and more affordable for communities, and spare use the nonsense charity accounting. It's all too easy to clean out the pockets of the poor and throw a few pennies of "charity" back as as sop.

elaine said...

Hi Anonymous :)
Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment. I agree that charity is not the most significant of impacts and that this should not detract from a core business strategy which addresses sustainability issues. However, I also believe that community involvement and employee volunteering (not just donating cash) bring many advantages both for the community and for the business, as well as offering possibilities to employees to experience positive things that they do not get in a regular day's work. My point is that companies should be clearer about how they communicate this.
warm regards

Anonymous said...

Employees can volunteer on their own and are always free to do so, as individuals.

If a company has funds or resources available to spend on the redundant activity of organising volunteer work, then I would like to know what that money isnt instead being spend to develop more socially valuable products and services - or reducing the price of them.

The reason companies like to focus on charity is that it provides cheap marketing impact. It gets you a mention in the press and among people. But that is an INTERNALLY focused benefit, it is not the best use of those resources if you are actually interested in DOING something for the community.

Better yet, if communities matter so much why doesnt AT&T tie its high paid executive bonuses to community impact, rather than rounding up low paid employees to go spend their time making the company look good.

As I said, once you look carefully at this, it stinks.

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