When Cyclone Fani left a trail of destruction in the eastern part of India earlier this year, apart from government bodies involved, a host of companies came forward to contribute in meaningful ways.
Zomato, a food delivery aggregator aligned with Feeding India, a charity that provides food for the needy. Likewise, Amazon, the e-commerce giant, with a significant presence in India, opened its platform for online-giving to displaced families. State Bank of India Insurance, on the other hand decided to make the insurance claims process smoother and simpler for those impacted by the cyclone. IndiGo, an airline in the country, lent support to help survivors rebuild their lives.
Elsewhere, during the migrant crisis in Europe, 36 organizations in Germany created a coalition called We Together to integrate refugees into the country apart from setting an example of shared corporate social responsibility.
With the border issue taking mind space in the United States, AirBnB launched a campaign #WeAccept that promoted race and diversity even when there was a divide on the topic.
Now consider these examples –
In an attempt to give its environmentally safe cars an unfair advantage with emission control, a car manufacturer, who claimed to be a socially responsible citizen, rigged engines resulting in false readings. An investigation resulted in the arrest of a senior leader, the loss of reputation and the erosion of trust in multinationals with lofty goals.
When a garment factory caught fire and another collapsed, killing many people in Bangladesh, it put the spotlight on unethical considerations of multinational organizations that sourced from countries using cheap labor for well-known brands worn by millions globally.
Attempting to spark a conversation on racial inequality a global coffee chain asked its baristas to involve customers in the dialogue. However, the campaign idea met with a backlash due to other pressing issues taking precedence. This forced the company to withdraw the communication and admit it failed to understand customer sentiments.
What strikes you about these examples? Are these organizations opportunists to align with social causes and claim to be righteous? Or, are they authentic brands who truly want to make a difference to the world around them?
According to me, three themes emerge from the examples above.
- Organizations that have successfully engaged audiences through their social purposes identified and surfaced an unmet societal need that aligned with business goals and values.
- They created a forum for open dialogue even if it meant challenging their own assumptions and making themselves uncomfortable
- By thoughtfully curating ideas, they converged energies to drive sustainable positive change involving stakeholders
Whichever way you look at it, organizations today are expected to not just ‘stand for something’ but ‘stand up’ for what is right. Even if it means taking a counterintuitive approach. In today’s polarized world, it isn’t just enough to be making profits, although that is primarily the function of businesses – to use its resources to maximize value for stakeholders. The business purpose (maximizing profit) and the social purpose (doing good) are interlinked and the reason why organizations exist and stand the test of time. There is a third aspect – the employee’s sense of purpose. Aligning all three can lead to effective outcomes. There isn’t anything wrong existing for profit although there is overwhelming evidence that having a social conscience can amplify impact, attract talent and increase engagement.
The reality inside organizations is quite stark. Although a majority of organizations have a brand and a corporate purpose, very few of them (1 in 10, as per Kantar Consulting’s Purpose 2020 report) are able to operationalize it.
The 2018 Edelman Earned Brand study indicates that 2/3rds of consumers globally make purchase decisions based on a brand’s ability to stand for something meaningful in the political or social context.
Likewise, in a 2017 study by Sustainable Brands and Ernst & Young with medium and large organizations in 22 countries and 25 industries, only 6% of those polled felt their firms were operating in a sustainable manner and had a purpose-led brand. An Accenture-led study discovered that 47% of consumers would leave brands if they lacked a purpose.
The good news is that corporate social purpose is gaining momentum with 73% of C-suite believing that purpose-driven organizations will lead in the future, according to a Covestro 2018 survey. Organizations can leverage opportunities ahead of them. For example, the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer suggests a shift in the employee-employer relationship with employees willing to trust their employers more today than ever before. The catch: only if they are willing to act on societal issues apart from empowering staff and investing in job development.
Consumers and citizens frustrated by the lack of transparency, accountability and responsibility of governments are also open to engaging businesses more. Take the case of India, where the government has invited the private sector to participate in capability building and improving necessities such as better roads, enhanced schooling, water systems among others. The 2% CSR guidelines for companies allows for investments in this space.
Recently, the Indian Finance Minister announced the establishment of a social stock exchange joining a few countries like Canada, UK, Kenya and Singapore to allow investments in companies and funds that have a positive social and environment impact. The emphasis on promoting enterprises, which have a focus on doing good for the society give impetus.
Organizations today are not just judged on their profits, products or services they offer but on the strength of their relationships with their stakeholders – staff, consumers, suppliers, communities among others. To be a social enterprise, the organization must shift towards an operating model that has a ‘network of teams’ and have a focus on the external environment.
So how can organizations activate their social purposes to lead in an ever-changing business environment? What can leaders do to involve staff and ensure they are engaging stakeholders with a purpose-led mission?
BRINGING THE SOCIAL PURPOSE TO LIFE
- Flip the perspective: Organizations who invest time in identifying the gap in societal needs will be more equipped to address them and align with their business purpose. Going back to the roots helps to discover the true reason for being. It isn’t about creating a new purpose solely for the intent of gaining attention and championing a cause. There will always be barriers to change – be it inertia to attempt something different, leadership disinterest or lack of clarity and transparency in how the purpose links with the organization’s goals. Shifting the focus will mean helping employees to connect their purpose with the organization’s social aims. This will involve self-reflection, reinforcement through storytelling and much more.
- Appeal to personal purpose: Getting the social purpose of your organization front and center of all staff can only happen when you seek out key influencers. These are employees who are highly engaged, want to do more than their jobs and make a collective difference. Involve them in the journey. Despite realizing the incredible value of empowering employees’ personal sense of purpose (70%) through volunteering and community involvement, just 17% of senior leaders felt it was extremely important to activate. Actively seeking influencers within the organization, recognizing staff who go over and beyond and creating a ground-up campaign that acknowledges people living the organization’s purpose can go a long way in create an atmosphere of shared success.
- Harness positive momentum: Very little effort goes into truly understanding how and why consumers think, feel and act. Investing in design thinking has immense benefits and can lead to inspirational ideas never before considered for social change. Helping staff revisit their reasons for joining and identifying with the organization can uncover deep meaning at work. Only when employee’s sense of purpose connects with the organization’s reason for existence can positive energy be harvested. Avoid tinkering with purpose statements to make them sound ‘social’ or ‘cool’. The social purpose of the organization already exists. It isn’t about the language or semantics that will make stakeholders believe organizations. This leads me to the next theme – authenticity.
- Focus on authenticity: Organizations need to ask provoking questions about their commitment to causes before claiming they stand for something socially conscious. Projecting a higher purpose, for the same of one, can be a bad idea. Consider this. The 2017 Carbon Majors Database indicates that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. Which organization on this list will want to state they are ‘clean’? Hiring socially conscious staff and recognizing values-led engagement can help organizations build the right mindset internally. When organizations
- Communicate consistently: Make your social commitments visible and integrated in every part of the employee’s journey and experience. Have leaders walk the talk and share stories on how they are living the values and connecting to the purpose in their own ways. Harness the wisdom of crowds. Look up how an accounting firm got their staff to communicate their connection to the company’s purpose, driving enormous change. By allowing for creative expression, it created a culture of positive change.
Reiterating your organization’s social purpose is an ongoing piece of work and not a one-off campaign. Nor is it about creating a new statement to go with the times. Organizations exist to make profits. Aligning your organization’s business strategy with a social purpose can be meaningful as long as it is authentic. Just being true to your product or service and focusing relentlessly on customers can do well for business and the communities.
As Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock, the investment management firm stated:
“Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose – in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked. Profits are essential if a company is to effectively serve all of its stakeholders over time – not only shareholders, but also employees, customers, and communities. Similarly, when a company truly understands and expresses its purpose, it functions with the focus and strategic discipline that drive long-term profitability. Purpose unifies management, employees, and communities. It drives ethical behaviour and creates an essential check on actions that go against the best interests of stakeholders. Purpose guides culture, provides a framework for consistent decision-making, and, ultimately, helps sustain long-term financial returns for the shareholders of your company.”
About the Author
Aniisu K. Verghese is an award-winning corporate communications and social responsibility practitioner with over 18 years of experience in leading multinational organizations. He is the author of Internal Communications – Insights, Practices and Models, and is passionate about engaging communicators and students through workshops, speaking engagements, teaching assignments and blogging. He has served on the International Association of Business Communicator (IABC)’s South India Chapter Board, the SABRE Awards – South Asia Jury and the IABC’s Gold Quill Asia Pacific Award panel. Aniisu periodically contributes thought leadership articles for the Shared Services & Outsourcing Network and the Institute of Public Relations. He is the recipient of the 2015 PR Hall of Fame Award from the Public Relations Council of India. He can be reached on LinkedIn. Views expressed in this post are personal.