Communicating social change: no truth, no trust

written by Pilar Balet and Margarida Teixeira, Stone Soup Consulting

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

Just a few years ago, social impact was a term that society barely used. At that time, it was imperative to leave some space or time to explain its meaning when addressing non-specialized audiences. Today, we find “social impact” at the tip of everybody’s tongue. Every communication strategy includes one way or the other, the social focus or change commitment of a certain organization or company.

But what does social impact really mean? In short, we could define it as the (social) change, positive or negative, that happens to communities — and individuals — as a result of an action or activity. Therefore, when organizations want to showcase their social impact, they should tell the whole story: what was the change they were seeking at first, how did it come about, its results, and what impact did they have on the beneficiaries’ lives or the environment.

Organizations and companies communicate their social impact in many ways, using a variety of communication channels and, maybe too often, very flashy materials. Usually, it is a matter of a specific external communication campaign wanting to highlight how well they performed in terms of social responsibility, aiming at improving their branding efforts in an era of changing consumption patterns towards more sustainable demands. However, when looking at the way many organizations communicate their social impact in more detail, we find that the change they generated can often seem a bit… blurred. On many occasions, we only learn about the final results of a project or activity, such as the number of trainees that attended a capacity building workshop, or the number of trainings they performed. The process through which they got there is not always clear, and we barely get to see the real impact it had on the people or the environment. Did they improve their job search capacities? If so, which and how far? Where did it lead them to?

It has taken its time, but today’s society and its priorities have changed. Trying to position the brand of our organization as a responsible and trustworthy one without being transparent about the social change we generate can be tricky. Not communicating our social impact coherently and in-depth can harm not only the public perception of the organization but also its internal development. Reflecting and sharing with honesty our results, internally and externally, is key in the path to continue challenging ourselves and enabling our organization to evolve. Honest reporting is not just a matter of “looking good” for the wider public — it also fosters ethical values within the organization itself.

We must invest in finding the answers

When talking about social change, we refer to the change that happens beyond the individual level. We think about who is involved in our activities, how we are changing their lives, or in which way are we challenging wider unequal structures in society. However, it is not only about highlighting what we do, but especially why we are doing it, how and what for. Before turning the mikes on, we should ask ourselves some general questions such as: What inequalities are we tackling? What change has effectively taken place as a result of our actions — and what change must we still achieve? Also, other questions linked to more specific issues such as: are we taking diversity and inclusion into account, or what is the environmental impact of our activities?

The reality is that we will only be able to communicate our social change if we answer these questions truthfully and if we invest in accountability and transparency. If the managing team is willing to dedicate time and money to find the answers and share them publicly in a comprehensive way. Digital marketing campaigns or the latest graphic design trends will not be enough to gain the trust of the community; to position ourselves as a leading changemaker and set the path for others.

Communicating accountability is not only about downloading a report with nice photos and overall figures. It is mainly about people understanding how far those numbers go. How well our funds were spent. It’s about giving context to the challenges our organization faced, the feedback of the people involved in the process, and the time we spent on it. It is about sharing some in-taking evaluation data and openly reflecting on the lessons learned.

From an internal point of view, we also need to be accountable to ourselves. Let us ask the tough questions: is our team fulfilling our mission? Are we making things better? By honestly answering these questions and sharing them with our team and supporters, we can act upon them together, find solutions and boost our social impact. Thus, communication is key in the change process. At the time, Engineers Without Borders (EWB) pioneered this path with their annual Failure Report, which highlighted the organization’s failures and what was learned from them, and even more importantly, it established the norm of discussing failures and learning early and often, attracting new talent who appreciated a culture where staff can take smart risks in pursuit of innovation.

Communicating social change involves being accountable, and transparent

Accountability and transparency are deeply interconnected. We cannot be transparent without being accountable: we need to find the answers first. However, complex spreadsheets or graphics are not transparent, they are not accessible nor tell the full story. We must leave the gatekeeper syndrome behind and share our information in an engaging way, accessible to as many as possible. There are plenty of tools out there — from data visualization to storytelling — we can use to explain our path towards social change and integrate it into our organizations’ narrative. From the kind of materials we produce, how we curate information, and the way in which we interact within our team — all aspects of our communication strategy should involve accountability and transparency.

However, being accountable and transparent takes some courage. It involves telling more than what pleases us and sharing information that might be perceived as negative. We have to be brave to dig deep into our performance, prepared to share some unexpected answers, maybe criticism or even failure. But it is also an opportunity to show that we are human, that we can learn from our mistakes, drive us to innovation and achieve new changes. Patagonia and its Climate Goals show us how this is an essential part of the process that will lead us to build on our organizations’ levels of trust. The B Corp Stone Soup Consulting has also pursued an honest reporting culture involving all its stakeholders since 2016, asking the tough questions throughout dozens of questionnaires that lead to learnings openly shared in its Honesty Report.

Transparency and accountability are a matter of approach and values of an organization, they are not something you wake up one day to and decide to use in your communication strategy. They must be fully integrated into the culture of the organization, and performed by the team on a day-to-day basis. Only by finding it in the essence, we will be able to understand the social change we are making and, thus, communicate it properly. Internally and externally. This is the approach that can truly set us apart in a world crowded with social change influencers. People are eager to know who is doing things right, choose the good guy and support it. No truth, no trust.

Pilar Balet Robinson and Margarida Teixeira work as consultants with the B Corp Stone Soup Consulting. They support the communication strategies of projects driven by social change, if you are interested in collaborating reach out to them.

Stone Soup Consulting — an international consultancy and B Corporation whose mission is to optimize the social impact of organizations. Subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter.

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