Pulling Off the Impossible

Stephanie Robertson, president of SiMPACT Strategy Group, founded her company in 2004. Having helped companies in the UK such as Shell, Vodafone, and Friends Provident better think through their CSR and community investment programs, Robertson wanted to bring her experience to bear in Canada. To this end, SiMPACT, which has eight people and offices in Calgary and Toronto, works with organizations to understand, value, maximize, and better communicate their social impact. Robertson also founded LBG (London Benchmarking Group) Canada in 2005, to provide a methodology for community investment professionals to better assess the value of their work for both their businesses and the communities they work with. To date, 43 companies are members of the LBG Canada initiative.

Stephanie Robertson, president.

When I worked in government, I became fascinated by how often business, government, and society sat down to discuss an issue that they all had in common, but how hard it was to get that discussion going and to make progress. My perception was that there weren’t enough people in the sectors that understood the other sectors’ languages, operating constraints, and decision-making procedures, and I wanted to be the kind of professional that could facilitate those conversations.

Community investment is in its very early stages of being understood as a profession, as a business unit, and as an opportunity for a company to create value. In the UK in the mid-’90s, when the CSR agenda blew onto the horizon incorporating sustainability and human rights, CEOs around the world went: “Oh my goodness, we have been investing in the community for the last history of our company and all of the money that we’ve put into the community is not helping me deal with all of these new issues.” So the priority around community investment became significantly diminished. While some companies are ahead of the curve, most are only beginning to see the potential of community investment as a strategic tool.

I don’t believe there are a bunch of people in business actively trying to harm people or the planet, but I do believe that we need more business people that understand and consider the impact on people and the planet in the course of their daily work. While studying for my MBA at the London Business School, I became very interested in the whole capacity building and skill side of the corporate social responsibility, community investment, and social-impact agendas; that’s really where my work and interest has focused since 1999.

Many companies say if I’m not going to make any money, then I’m not going to do this. And we try and flip it around: actually, you can create value for a business in many different ways by engaging in community issues. You can engage your employees, complete research, test your products, and talk to government differently. What we’re trying to do is support the community investment professional to help them structure their decision-making and the evidence of the results that flow from their decisions. From there, they can speak to value in the community and therefore link value in the community to value in their business. This is a very big part of what LBG Canada is all about.

A couple of years ago, Petro Canada was going through the process of nationalizing all of its community investment programs. Petro Canada in Calgary has had this program called the Teddy Bear Toss for 15 years. When the first goal is scored in the last hockey game before Christmas, teddy bears are thrown onto the ice, collected, and distributed to children in need across the city. The situation was that there is someone in somewhere like San Francisco trying to negotiate with someone in New York about why this Calgary Teddy Bear Toss should be saved rather than be put on the chopping block. Petro Canada Calgary used LBG Canada tools to lay out the objectives, metrics, and the value from the business perspective; also there was a huge employee engagement that was not well understood in the negotiations. After this program was clearly presented in one page, the head of the retail business—who was the key decision maker and key hurdle—came back and asked them how do we make this a national program.

What companies in the UK realized—and I think Canadian companies are realizing today—is that community investment involves a third party: the community. In 2007, when I returned to the UK, it was clear to me that British companies were looking at community investment as a flagship or a beacon with which to attract people to their corporate culture, so when they produced information about their environmental or social performance, it wouldn’t be to a sceptical audience. Instead, that audience is interested in your community investment programs—they believe that you are doing what you say you’re doing.