OPINION: Reports don't have to be dull

Lisa Harker, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

The Smart Company lives up to its name. Its most recent report makes the clever observation that the voluntary sector could learn a thing or two from the way that companies have compiled their social and environmental reports.

The lessons are clear. For-profit organisations have paid great attention to their style and method of communicating about their social and environmental impact, hyper-conscious about potential criticism from stakeholders, NGOs and the media.

The Smart Company's observation comes at a time when the reporting techniques of voluntary organisations are being scrutinised. The sector has been rightly criticised for paying too little attention to the way it reports its activities to a wide range of stakeholders. The main method of communication, the annual report, is all too often used as a PR tool rather than being an honest account of mission, activities and performance.

The approach that some corporations have taken in compiling their social and environmental reports provides voluntary organisations with some helpful hints. Such companies have shown that it is possible to have a clear focus on outcomes, to strive for fair assessments of achievement and to use the web as a regular means of communication.

But there is just one problem with aping corporate reporting techniques.

Many social and environmental reports produced by companies are so mind-numbingly boring you have to be some kind of corporate social responsibility geek to muster the energy to wade through them. If voluntary organisations are seeking new methods to communicate the progress of their hard work effectively, they might need to look elsewhere.

As the sector debates ways to improve its regular reporting to stakeholders, the desire to provide clearer information should not overshadow the need for organisations to promote the value of their work. The choice shouldn't be between meaningless triumphal messages and worthy but dull assessments.

Reporting information needs to inspire as well as inform.

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