Strategic Impact

By Louden Richason



When I began my internship at BSR, I had one overarching question: Which player in the business and human rights space is best positioned to have the greatest impact?

Unfortunately I still cannot answer that question with certainty. However, I leave BSR much less convinced whether that is the most important question to answer.

In my previous two posts, I have touched on the necessity of all of the players across the business and human rights space: businesses, nonprofits, and organizations like BSR that negotiate the space between the two. BSR bridges the gap between nonprofits and NGOs who advocate for issues and sometimes target companies and companies that desire to proactively or reactively advance human rights in their operations.

Instead, I have found myself asking what is perhaps a much more critical question: What strategies can BSR and other organizations employ to accelerate change and maximize impact?

My experience at BSR has exposed me to a few of these strategies. They can be just as applicable to other nonprofits and companies as they are to BSR:

1. Stakeholder engagement
At BSR, I worked as part of the human rights team to conduct human rights impact assessments for companies in the extractives and information and communications technology (ICT) industries. Stakeholder engagement in these projects entailed interviews with international experts on certain human rights issues, members of local communities affected by companies, and employees within the companies. These interviews allowed BSR to holistically view the both the impacts of the issue at hand and the potential implementation challenges a company might face in addressing them. BSR could then cater its strategy to address the concerns raised throughout the process.

From my experience, interviews with international experts provided more insight on current debates surrounding a human rights issue than hours of research would have produced. My mentor, Peter Nestor, continually stressed the importance of not “reinventing the wheel” when working this topic, and I saw repeatedly how much information a single conversation could provide.

For example, our research for a collaborative initiative on human trafficking involved interviews with people and organizations dedicated to eradicating human trafficking to get a sense of existing resources and current initiatives to ensure that we were not duplicating efforts. These interviews provided us with critical information unavailable online and accelerated the rate of our research.

Secondly, for a separate project with a mining company, interviews with members of local communities provided critical insight into the cultural complexities of the communities affected by a company, as well as information about the reputation of the company in the area. Throughout my experience, I noticed that the perspectives of community members had the potential to expose issues that had been initially regarded as less significant to projects.

Moreover, interviews with those within the company provided valuable information about the day-to-day operations in the company, the prevalence of communication and cooperation across different parts of the company, and various people’s visions for the future. This information, only accessible through these conversations, can guide further research and inform BSR’s recommendations to a company to maximize its positive impacts and mitigate any potential negative impacts.

2. Careful choice of language 
Using ‘human rights jargon’ (i.e. the language of international human rights law) can make it more challenging for businesses to understand why they should take human rights considerations into account. It is important to translate language into terms that will resonate with those in different industries. Employees working at an apparel company, for example, may not realize the relevance of human rights in their company’s operations until they understand that human trafficking could be widespread in its supply chain. Thus, to maximize impact and accelerate change, organizations must cater their language to resonate with those that would need to take action to affect the desired outcome. Even those within the human rights departments of companies must make human rights language understandable and relevant to their colleagues across departments for a more integrated approach to respecting human rights. Case studies presented to BSR’s Human Rights Working Group repeatedly highlight the importance of such strategic language ‘translation.’

3. Continued consultation
For the ICT company human rights impact assessment that I participated in, BSR met weekly with human rights and sustainability leads in the company. This consultation not only allowed those within the company to stay informed of the project’s progress but also influenced BSR’s research and overall strategy. The human rights and sustainability leads, who are inherently more familiar with the internal workings of their company, contributed insights into the most relevant language to use and the people within the company whose approval would be critical for the project’s implementation and success. Although the project is ongoing, this perspective is likely to be key in helping maximize the potential impact of the project.

Each player in the business and human rights space undoubtedly plays a necessary role. What I learned at BSR is that discussions should focus less on comparisons of importance among players and more on ways for each to maximize impact and accelerate change. Stakeholder engagement, careful choice of language, and continued consultation are three possible strategies to achieve meaningful results.