The Path to a Purpose Led Business:

Exploring CSR Strategies for Sustainable Impact in Unprecedented Times

Over the past several years, a number of industry defining events have occurred, generating action and response from the philanthropy world. As members of this collective community, this is not the first time we have rallied behind disaster relief and response efforts. But this time is different.

The COVID- 19 pandemic has changed the world as we know it and its impact knows no bounds. The levels of need are truly unprecedented and no business, sector, person or economy has evaded disruption. It is for this reason, that the need for generosity has never been greater.

Sheltering at home for the past two months has allowed me to reflect on what social engagement, charitable giving, volunteerism, grantmaking, and philanthropy really mean. How can philanthropy cultivate solutions to the issues we are facing?

One thing is certain, I do not have all the answers, but I do have hope. Together we can build a future with purpose at its core, an altruistic concern for human welfare and advancement. Together we can define a new normal that thrives at the intersection of philanthropy and business as usual.

How “Purpose Led” Is Defined

Many years ago, I read an article in The Economist (yes, The Economist) called “Does CSR Work” that addressed core corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies that are still applicable today:

  • Create a sustainable model to be of service
  • Communicate, engage and endorse employee actions
  • Understand and know the audience you have committed to
  • Data tells no lies (and as I like to say, “measure what you treasure”)

These wonderfully practical guidelines remind corporations, businesses and foundations to weave social responsibility and sustainability into their everyday business practices to create a benefit for the environment, staff, and wider society as a whole.  

These four points above are also components of a purpose driven business model, which focuses on ensuring organizations consciously and positively impact society, create employee environments that thrive, and grow revenues as an added benefit.  Expectations of business have changed (even more so in the past 2-3 months), with COVID-19 as the dramatic disruption. Creating a positive impact on society to support communities in times of crisis is critical. How we rise together now will be remembered. 

Becoming purpose-led during COVID-19 requires leadership (at all levels) to be engaged, and communicate the organization's purpose clearly, consistently, and often. Employees need to know and feel that their work and the organization’s purpose are aligned and authentic, and that everyone has a role in a purpose-led organization. Being a socially responsible enterprise requires balance between impact and revenues. 

As a point of clarification, purpose and CSR are intertwined but CSR is not purpose, and purpose is not CSR. Purpose is what your organization stands for and what you stand for includes your CSR programs. Taking many forms, CSR is a broad concept that incorporates philanthropy and volunteer efforts, and creates programs to benefit society. 

What’s Next?

When we get past this - and we will, what comes next?  We have traditionally listened to the past to create a better future, thinking of ways to “even the playing field” and create a place where we can be of service to humankind. However, many of us don’t have a clear view into what life will look like after the pandemic abates, and we need to chart the future we want.

Corporate Social Responsibility has been around since the 50’s. When I started in the industry in 1998, “being charitable” was simply as defined as  “relating to the assistance of those in need.” Since then, a lot has happened, and 2019 saw renewed commitments in CSR with the Business Roundtable redefining the purpose of a corporation. CSR has evolved into an industry, with a lot of attention and focus, particularly now. To build a purpose-led CSR program driven by values, McKinsey, in their Social Responsibility Report, shared three goals to consider:

  1. Concentrate your CSR efforts. Management time and resources are limited, so the greatest opportunities will come from areas where the business significantly interacts with and can have the greatest impact on society. These are areas where the business not only can gain a deeper understanding of the mutual dependencies and the highest potential for mutual benefit.
  2. Build a deep understanding of the benefits. Even after selecting your chosen areas of opportunity, finding the potential for mutual value creation is not always straightforward. The key is finding symmetry between the two sides and being open enough to understand issues both from a business and a societal perspective.
  3. Find the right partners. These will be those that benefit from your core business activities and capabilities — and that you can benefit from in turn. Partnering is difficult, but when both sides see win–win potential there is greater motivation to realize the substantial benefits. Relationships — particularly long-term ones that are built on a realistic understanding of the true strengths on both sides — have a greater opportunity of being successful and sustainable.

In this current era of COVID-19, our purpose is more applicable and collective than ever — and on a much broader scale — looking beyond local communities to global efforts. While 2019 may have seen a growth in CSR initiatives and effort to “serve all stakeholders”, in 2020 the purpose of an organization is to serve society now and into the future. This year has seen corporations and foundations doing their best to maintain business continuity in uncertain times while also directing efforts to help those in the most need. 

When we start to come out of this, we know there will still always be a need, but our context will broaden. How can we ensure alignment with our people and purpose? How can we together tackle our global issues — the UN Sustainable Development Goals — in a more concerted effort? What can we apply from COVID-19 response learnings? How can we be more effective purpose-led organizations? Time will tell.

Want to learn more? Contact us to discuss your CSR needs today!

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