Does Focusing on "Society" Limit Business as a Force of Good?

A growing majority of business leaders are in agreement. Not only is "doing good" a moral imperative, it is good for business.
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A growing majority of business leaders are in agreement. Not only is "doing good" a moral imperative, it is good for business. It strengthens brand and attracts talent. It can drive more effective operations and open new markets.

We're all in. The real question is how.

Ironically, I believe we box in our organizations' potential to do good when we focus only on societal good -- which can limit our view of doing good to what we achieve through our corporate citizenship programs rather than what we do throughout our business.

In working with many of the world's most impactful organizations, I have gleaned five steps that can be useful in directing the way.

  1. Articulate a purpose that profits from good

It may sound odd to lead off by talking about profit. However, I want to be clear and unapologetic: profit is necessary. Exceptional businesses sustain bottom-line results, which they invest to create meaningful, positive impact for their stakeholders.

As business leaders, we should not choose between profit or good; rather, we must choose to profit from good. And that requires connecting what we do with a purpose beyond profit -- a reason to exist that meets our shared sense of "doing good."

In a 2013 Core Beliefs & Culture survey investigating workplace culture, Deloitte found these top three factors in achieving meaningful purpose:

1. Products and services that make a meaningful impact on clients

2. Employee development programs that offer education, training and mentorship

3. Products and services that benefit society

Therefore, I believe we should widen the aperture and include our clients and employees when defining how and where we can make a positive impact.

Living a purpose that profits from good means we regularly ask ourselves:

What meaningful impact are we generating for clients?

How are we mentoring and developing our talent?

How are we donating skills to make communities stronger?

  • Move good to the core
  • Social entrepreneurs like RecycleBank, Zipcar, or Simple Energy are for-profit businesses built around social or environmental challenges. The shoe company TOMS was founded on its One-for-One commitment, which states, "With every product you purchase, TOMS will help a person in need."

    But what about the millions of existing enterprises with established business models? We must take a fresh view of every aspect of our business as a chance to expand how we do good.

    Consider personal-care giant Unilever, which is generating profitable business growth by tapping an underserved market in India. The company has partnered with NGOs, governments, and banks to sell a highly portable, bio-friendly soap to promote hand washing where sanitation is a constant concern. Initially 17 women gained a source of income and status by selling the soap. By collaborating with local businesses on a microloan program, Unilever has expanded its network to 43,000, serving three million Indian households.

    Rethinking product supply chains offers another opportunity for traditional enterprises to introduce a host of positive outcomes. Deloitte has helped design strategic social partnerships involving global corporations, government agencies and NGOs that benefit underserved communities with training for local enterprises, access to financing, and job creation -- at the same time reducing costs and increasing sustainable sourcing for the business enterprise.

    Another positive outcome involves the skills, experiences, and sense of fulfillment personnel gain from working on such projects. Talent recruitment and retention is core to every business and should not be undervalued when assessing opportunities to make a positive impact.

    Put simply, developing and mentoring people can make a huge difference for generations to come.

    Moving good to the core involves looking at products/services, talent, and operations with a fresh view:

    Is there an underserved market that creates shared value?

    What experiences will enrich the lives of employees?

    Is there a different way to run operations that generates more positive outcomes?

  • Do good better
  • Even as we broaden our definition of purpose, we must press for better ROI from Corporate Citizenship initiatives. Skills-based volunteerism often provides value far beyond traditional giving or volunteering. Nonprofit leaders want corporate volunteers to help them build organizational capacity, but 92 percent say they don't get enough pro bono support. We get greater returns through initiatives such as Billion + Change, which has inspired more than 500 companies to commit to more than $2 billion in skills-based volunteerism.

    Many issues are so massive and complex no single sector can fix the problem. Take education, for example. In the U.S. we have huge gaps despite substantial government efforts as well as contributions from business and other private organizations, which in 2012 totaled $41 billion.

    To make headway, we need more concerted and creative partnerships. One good example is the recent White House College Accessibility Summit. During the event, nonprofit College Summit unveiled ScholarJob, which provides business with a strong, structured role in increasing the number of low-income high school students getting to and through college.

    In a recent Corporate-NGO Barometer Survey, 79 percent of CEO respondents expected their investment in social sector partnerships to increase over the next three years.

    Increasing the ROI from corporate citizenship starts with these questions:

    What skills do our employees have that would benefit a nonprofit?

    What other organizations can we collaborate with?

    How can we best structure and manage these partnerships to scale the impact?

  • Do no harm
  • All the good work in the world will not compensate for the damage that a single facet of the business, or a rogue individual, can do. Insider trading, environmental damage, human-rights violations, and opportunistic practices erode trust and result in net negative impact.

    Therefore, every decision must square with the organization's purpose. This is especially important when weighing the implications of actions that may create short-term gains but jeopardize long-term commitments.

    Of course, nothing is perfect. Mistakes will happen. When they do, business leaders need to step up with 100 percent transparency and 0 percent tolerance.

    Every decision must factor:

    Who or what could this hurt?

    In serving one group what is the effect on others or the environment?

    Who is accountable?

  • Set a good example
  • There is ample evidence connecting positive stakeholder impact with sustained business success. A proliferation of new measures such as Social Return on Investment and the use of a double and triple bottom lines aim to factor the value of doing good into the balance sheet.

    I believe these efforts, along with greater transparency provided through corporate reporting and social media, will help institutionalize doing good as part of doing business.

    The virtuous cycle starts by articulating and instilling a clear sense of purpose in all who represent our organizations. Fortunately, we have many fine examples of business leaders who are setting the pace.

    Two questions:

    Who is my role model?

    Am I a role model?

    The answers can point us in the direction of right -- and show us how our businesses can be a force of good.

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