I almost didn’t complete this review! I got sidetracked by a l-o-n-g visit to Thinkfinity.org, described as Verizon's "signature philanthropic program", a website funded by Verizon, and a key part of the Verizon foundation's $68M community investment expenditure in 2008. Apparently I am not alone in marvelling at the wealth of learning tools freely available to educators, students and parents on this digital learning platform which attracted nearly 50 million visits in 2008 and nearly 3,000 schools. This is an outstanding example of using corporate technological capability for public good. "Hopeline" is another worthy Verizon program, for collection of unwanted cellphones and batteries. Sales of refurbished equipment generated $1.5M cash donations to 350 domestic violence organizations, in addition to the donation of 21,000 refurbished phones and 63 million minutes of service. Impressive, indeed. The sort of leadership activity we might expect of a leading telecoms player.
Community investment is not the only highlight for me in this Verizon report. As a large business with revenues of close to $100 billion, employing 220,000+, serving 72 million customers, Verizon does a good job of describing the overwhelming positive indirect impact potential of the ICT sector to transform the quality of life. Issues aired include those we are now quite familiar with such as safety of radio frequency in use of cellphones, content and advertizing guidelines, internet safety especially for children, privacy and also the use of IT in facilitating environmental friendly behaviors such as telecommuting, teleconferencing, e-commerce and more. Verizon reports on customer-facing initiatives such as paperless billing, use of broadband, Video on Demand service and "smart grid" electricity distribution using ICT.
Verizon provides good context for these material issues, and in one area, Verizon's "Go Paperless" campaign, presents data of 97 million saved bills and 2,150 saved tons of paper. However, the report tends to read a little like a guide to the perfect socially responsibly ICT Company, rather than a full account of Verizon-specific priorities. An example of this would be the four pages in this report devoted to the potential of ICT to improve health care infrastructure and services. It's the Chairman / CEO's personal soapbox, though there is no doubt that the message rings true as transformation of IT in health care systems would clearly benefit both the general public and Verizon. Whilst I applaud Verizon for giving needed attention to this issue, and their activism in this field, its presentation in this report is evangelist and fails to communicate the specific impact Verizon has had to date or the precise goals it aspires to.
I would have liked to see some reference to governance in this report. This is one of those Companies where the role of Chairman and CEO are held by the same person, which is not best governance practice. I would have liked to understand how the Board gets involved in CSR strategy and approves direction, expenditure and assesses its own performance. Similarly, I would have liked to see how CSR is managed within the business – senior management accountability for CSR, resources deployed and CSR strategy. For example, Verizon makes many political contributions and in 2008 published a report which is available on-line. It is a list of 55 pages (!) of individual contributions– with no sum total. The first page adds up to around $175k, so overall there appears to be several $M in political contributions. Whilst this is good reporting and transparency, I would have welcomed detail around how this budget is allocated, what business or stakeholder interest it actually serves, and what notable outcomes of this significant political expenditure can be identified and even quantified.
This report is readable and persuasive, section by section. But as a CR report, it hangs together less well. It follows no accepted guidelines such as GRI and provides no index of topics covered. Environmental impacts are covered in two dedicated sections, but show up as aspects of every other section as well, providing a rather fragmented view of Verizon's overall environmental strategy. The employee section is a short 3 pages, which seems underplayed compared to all the Best Workplace recognitions Verizon lists, and is focused on training, work-life balance, selected (positive) employee survey results and safety (13 fatalities in 3 years despite annual reconfirmation of commitment). I would have liked to see much more in this section- how Verizon's commitment to diversity plays out, staff development, turnover, and business restructuring impacts (8,500 fewer employees in 08 vs 07).
A nice touch is the section on stakeholders – Verizon completed a stakeholder survey of 50 opinion leaders in 2008 and does a great job in reflecting some of their feedback.
The theme of Verizon's CR reporting is "Doing the work". Naturally, with a theme like this, I expect to find action rather than rhetoric. And by and large, this report didn’t disappoint. There is much good in this report and Verizon demonstrates a strong CSR platform. However, I can't help but wonder just how 608,000 hours of employee volunteering (a 25% increase over '07) was achieved and how it was measured and verified. I wonder how $68M philanthropic investments were calculated – and how $15M of this for volunteerism adds up. I wonder how Verizon calculated its Carbon Emissions and what these include. I wonder about an overall increase in 1% of GHG emissions, when Verizon reports reduction of emissions due to reduced energy use, technology upgrades, "smart cooling installations" in Data Centers, energy reducing "thin client" computers and 8,500 fewer people. Is Verizon really "doing the work" here? Recycling shows improvement, but no data is provided on absolute waste, material consumption or water footprint. Verizon's website includes more information on specific subjects, and perhaps the choices made about what to include in the short written report were difficult. I believe a materiality exercise and analysis would add more structure to this company's reporting and enhance credibility. On balance, Verizon's self-image as a leader in CSR appears healthy, though a deeper look may indicate that some of Verizon's efforts in "doing the work" are, at best, not fully reflected or at worst, limited. I applaud Verizon for doing the work so far, and would like to see more structure, focus, depth and verification in future reporting.
1. This report just cries out for assurance
2. Explain the way data is calculated
3. Materiality analysis – a "must-have" for future reports
4. Tighten up the flow of content – get the environmental stuff together and structure it to flow in the direction of increasing impact.
Elaine Cohen is the Joint CEO of BeyondBusiness Ltd, www.b-yond.biz, a leading CSR reporting and consulting firm in Israel, specializing in a wide range of consulting services for the development of social and environmental responsibility of businesses. Elaine Cohen is an independent reviewer and has no relationship with the reporting company.