Is your company guilty of Africa’s impact-washing problem?

Impact-washing occurs when an organisation attempts to pass itself off as being “better” than it is, communicating claims of social or environmental impact that have no clear positive or demonstrable evidence. While oftentimes organisations are unaware, because by their own standards they are genuinely giving it the best shot, there are tell-tale signs that an entity is not as true as it makes believe.

There are many ways to know what organisations are misleading stakeholders and not future-proofing their impact programmes – the most critical being their own knowledge of the truth.

Yes, we want to align to global best practices and champion sustainable causes, using the vehicles of our organisations. But without consciously doing so, we are doing more harm than good. If not curtailed, impact-washing can have more devastating consequences for business and beneficiary societies. To address this issue, companies must be encouraged to align their activities to wider objectives, global priorities and local realities.

There is no question that sustainability has taken front-row seats in global conversations, as calls for us to adopt more sustainable practices increase and climate-change fears rise. Academia and the third sector alike continue to mount pressure on governments and businesses to champion and adopt favourable policies that encourage social development, achievement of the sustainable development goals, but also drive, unfortunately and unintentionally, impact washing.

In Africa, where ESG funding is slowly, but gradually taking root, impact is still more closely tied to development-focused outcomes than climate effects, carbon footprints, labour, or diversity and inclusion (topic for another day). With its lagging growth, in all honesty, Africa’s many developmental challenges seem to aid impact-washing. Socio-economic problems abound; people want solutions to those problems and are more inclined to hold in higher esteem entities that seem to contribute to solving them. Organisations, on the other hand, hide behind these challenges to proffer poorly thought-out and superficial solutions, with the excuse of limited budgets and incapacity to do more.

Impact-washing is dangerous because it propagates a false narrative of development work and hampers truly committed actors from delivering more long-term solutions to deeply-rooted problems. That’s why, as important as communicators’ activities may seem for the good of the company, if not reflective of the truth, they do more harm in the long-term, especially engendering a culture of facades and false reporting, as well as unintentionally laying the foundation for future crises.

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This means that, eventually, when the more technical and invisible criteria for ESG practices become law, these would only have been bubbles. And as anyone who is a student of societies and economies knows, within every bubble is a potential crisis.

Unfortunately, businesses (and their communications or “sustainability” teams) that engage in impact-washing are often unaware of the implications of their activities, usually seeking to do good and contribute their quota in their little corner of the world.

But it is not difficult to determine where an organisation sits and to what degree its activities are authentic. If we look closely, reviewing our activities against global and local priorities, as well as societal needs, we can tell who is true or not.

Organisations guilty of washing can be identified by one or more of these characteristics: infrequent donations usually triggered by guilt or pressure – only giving when it is morally convenient; an unarticulated vision or purpose for impact, especially with no alignment to the corporate strategy; absence of partnerships; one-off communication or advocacy about a critical social issue, usually only delivered during international observance days or on the back of a trend; absent or limited employee involvement; no intentional structure or vehicle for implementing social impact projects; as well as absent measurement criteria, impact metrics and reporting framework.

I admit that, with the limited resources available to many organisations and the pressure to show some form of social impact beyond their day-to-day operations, impact-washing may seem inevitable. Yet, it is not impossible and definitely more profitable to be intentional about contributing to social development and adopting sustainable practices.

The best way to prevent deliberate or accidental impact-washing is by aligning activities with corporate vision and the relevant priorities. As is usually suggested to self-seeking narcissists, strategy and communications professionals must help our organisations look beyond themselves, not consumed with their own “glory” (or “positioning”, as we like to call it), to the actual needs of the communities each one chooses to help. Better still, with a desire to deliver such levels of impact, businesses must make more conscientious efforts at establishing the processes and frameworks for achieving them.

Oluwarantimi Olaniyan, Lead Consultant, Quadrant MSL, wrote in from Lagos.

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