Our 'honesty report' helps us to become a better consulting firm
April 11th 2023
By Sophie Robin
Stone Soup Impact Director and Co-founder
(Article first published on Pioneers Post)
Since 2017, Stone Soup has published an “honesty report” every two years.
The question we often get is: as an ethical consultancy which has worked for so many years on impact, why not just call your report an “impact” report, rather than “honesty” report? After all, is the content not the same?
The answer, though it sounds obvious, is not such an easy one. It is, rather, almost a philosophical one.
The first reason is on the focus: whereas the word “impact” puts the accent on the facts, “honesty” speaks more about attitude. Honesty is a central feature of ordinary life which is often overlooked, under-analysed. And trivialised. But in philosophy, this concept has strong links with ethics, and because we position ourselves as an “ethical consultancy”, it really spoke to us.
So, the title of our annual report was an almost unconscious instinct from our team to run away from a concept that is slowly being equated with impact-washing – because so many organisations are, unfortunately, using their report to only highlight their positive contributions to people and the planet. Our report title aimed to help bring the conversation back to where we feel we should be. That is: on the authenticity of impact reporting and on the honesty of the intentions behind it, so that we look at the reality as it is, to focus our resources on managing better both our positive and negative impacts.
For that to be possible, we need to look beyond impact itself: at how we, as individuals within organisations or as organisational leaders, relate to it. This is where the concept of honesty comes in handy.
For us, the questions were (and remain to this day) quite existential: is our activity as an ethical consultancy making any real, positive difference to the world? Are we displacing scarce resources to consulting that would have been better employed by these organisations to scale or deepen their impact on people and/or the planet? Are we accelerating, Is our intervention providing any additional benefit to what they do? And to the social ecosystem in general? Or are we just generating work for a new generation of professionals who would just like to feel good about themselves?
To be honest, our report does show that we are far from being able to answer these existentialist questions. But we hope that looking at them earnestly is a first step towards understanding some of them.
So, what did we learn?
To explain, we need to get back to our theory of change. At Stone Soup we aim to support our community of freelance consultants so that they enjoy their work, feel valued and, by engaging within the community, increase their social and intellectual capital. We then assume that these positive impacts will have a ripple effect on our clients’ ability to generate a positive impact on people and/or the planet.
This is our theory. But we don’t claim that we have achieved it. Rather, we see it as a constant work in progress.
For example, throughout our honesty reporting process, we saw that not all consultants feel engaged in our community in the same way. We created an index to assess their sense of belonging to a community. The results are encouraging, but not overwhelming: on a scale from -1 to 2, we are on 0.78, with significant differences between categories of consultants. As a result, we are actively working with them to learn what aspects can be improved so that this sense of community increases. Hopefully we will be able to communicate positive progress in our next honesty report this year.
Also, if some feel they have improved their ability to support organisations, it is not the case for all of them. Our honesty report process unveiled a lot of issues and allowed consultants to suggest further ways to improve, so that our impact on their intellectual and social capital also increases.
What about our clients? How do we know that we have indeed helped them maximise their social impact? There, we so far have only asked our directly through surveys and interviews. The results were positive, with 83% of respondents saying we have helped them in that mission. But these are based on a very small sample and remain subjective. In addition, it is possible that dissatisfied or unconvinced clients simply didn’t answer the survey. We are still thinking of better ways to assess our impact on our clients – including our potential negative impact – so that the results are more representative and compelling.
All in all, we recognise that we are just a drop in the ocean. But even within that drop, we would like to manage its acidity level correctly. This is why we are constantly and actively looking for what we are not doing well, or what could be improved. We acknowledge the positive signals, but are not afraid of showcasing our limitations and are happy to share our learning with other consultancies working with the same aim. Collectively, we still need to reflect on how to build better evidence on the impact ethical consultancies have on people and the planet. Positive or negative, we feel it is important enough that it deserves an honest conversation.