Sabre Collier is a Skoll Scholar and one of our Shell Foundation Fellows. She shares with us reflections from Johannesburg, where she is working with GroFin. GroFin finances small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Africa.
I had the interesting experience recently of taking a preliminary GIIRS/ B Corp assessment. For those not familiar:
GIIRS is a ratings agency and analytics platform for impact investors and B Corp certification is to sustainable business what LEED certification is to green building or Fair Trade certification is to coffee.
B Corps are certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.Today, there is a growing community of more than 600 Certified B Corps from 15 countries and 60 industries working together toward 1 unifying goal: to redefine success in business (Read more).
The experience was interesting because it reveals some of the complexity and trade-offs that will increasingly be faced as impact investing and social business become more and more sophisticated and industrialized.
In general, I support the idea of the B Corp and GIIRS Rating as they are vital to sector development and positively changing the nature of business and finance. Also, the assessment was very comprehensive and useful for business improvement. I would highly encourage fellow entrepreneurs to use it even if just to gain better perspective on one’s business model. The assessment must have had 100 items from governance to transparency to worker rights to LEED certification to employee training to staff diversity to environmental responsibility to infinitely more.
However, the rigor of such an assessment, particularly for small and growing businesses in low-income communities and countries, may be a bit unrealistic. How do we ensure higher standards without precluding more economically disadvantaged segments who can’t afford to invest in LEED certified buildings or paid worker training, etc? How many organizations from this segment have limited growth just because they lack awareness, capacity or tools for impact tracking and measurement and how do we change this? Note that we have to to take this in consideration when it comes to both organizations and individuals or the social impact space will not fulfill its potential to empower the most vulnerable.
In their favor, GIIRS and B Corp do actually take these challenges into consideration and thus, assessments have stratifications with different criteria.
The very existence of these rating systems underscore the increasing sophistication of social impact measurement. Back in the day, when primarily non-profits and NGOs were delivering social impact programming, social impact measurement had only a few tools and smaller sets of indicators. As the private sector has increasingly embraced shared value and the third sector has sought more commercial approaches to impact, rigor has increased. We all know what gets measured gets done. In the private sector, performance indicators can be narrowed down at the most granular level to make decisions about a store, a program or an employee.
As the social impact space continues to grow with the emergence of new corporate and social ventures, impact data is also increasing. This creates a network effect which will possibly make disclosing a broader and broader array of social impacts a requirement for impact investors and social businesses. The small set of indicators reported within an annual report are useful but with GIIRS and B Corp, the indicators encapsulate the life of the business or organization.
This holds them accountable for the broader social mission they uphold, not just their programs, but their whole business model and operations. For example, if an organizational mission is advancing professional outcomes for disadvantaged groups, then their HR policies would theoretically show some inclusion of this target and some specific growth opportunities, such as training. If solar plant manufacturer’s mission is environmental sustainability, then this is shown in both the number of panels produced but also in their sourcing and transport systems. For a long time, social businesses and organizations could simply focus on the core indicators but it is more tactical to ensure mission is aligned with operations at every level. This will be critical as much more transparency and measurement become the norm.
In the long run, this will certainly be a good thing. It will force businesses and organizations that are already doing good to do better. However, it will bring additional costs and time requirements. For impact investors serving small and growing businesses, we will have to make special effort to help them through this process because their impact is immense and deserves to be better reflected. For impact investors and social businesses at large, align operations with impact to bring your “A Game”.