Building a Socially Responsible Company: From the CEO to the Front Desk

8757719565_77059ddc15_zBy Benjamin Geyerhahn

What do a union advocate, a freelancer and an ex-convict have in common? There’s no punch line here — they’re all successful leaders and social entrepreneurs.

Social entrepreneurship commonly refers to businesses that use the market to fulfill social goals. For example, solar panel companies use the electricity market to serve the mission of delivering clean energy.

But no matter the market, social entrepreneurship involves innovative leaders focused on new ways of achieving social change.

The most impressive leaders understand that social responsibility is more than donating profits to a cause or doing business with higher ethical standards. While those practices are admirable, they are only the beginning of what social entrepreneurship can achieve.

Today’s new generation of social entrepreneurs has reimagined the framework for addressing social problems, focusing on sustainable, scalable ways to make change.

The union advocate

David Rolf, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 775 in Seattle, is going beyond the traditional union model and asking big questions about the future and scope of the union’s mission. Is the union specifically focused on representing the needs of its membership, or should it attempt to improve the lives of all workers? Rolf’s union is working on behalf of workers throughout Washington, and he’s leading the way in union innovation.

Rolf successfully led a campaign to push Seattle’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. Although this benefited some of the union’s members, it also improved the lives of all working people in Seattle. Rolf also encourages rethinking the union model at the Workers Lab, which is modeled after Silicon Valley accelerators and is focused on developing self-sustaining organizations that unite workers and improve their lives.

The freelancer

Sara Horowitz, another innovative social entrepreneur, founded the Freelancers Union. A union traditionally organizes employees from the workplace and seeks better pay and benefits on their behalf. Horowitz is organizing people who have no regular employer and working to solve their unique problems.

Indeed, high-quality, low-cost health insurance was a tool of sustainability for the Freelancers Union, but it was also a tool for it to attract members. The product became the organizing principal, but it was only a first step. The Freelancers Union also supports its members with professional development services and legislative support.

Horowitz rethought the union’s target and the tool of its sustainability to create an organization with the power to positively impact the lives of its members. It’s the first of what are commonly referred to as alt-unions and is easily the most successful.

The ex-convict

Frederick Hutson didn’t remake an old institution, but he did fix a social problem that few had previously considered. Hutson wanted to address inmates’ isolation from their families. The founder and CEO of Pigeonly knew how much isolation impacted inmates — he served four years in federal prison for trafficking marijuana.

But Hutson made the most of his incarceration. He wrote business plans and came up with the idea of making prison calls less expensive. He understood that he could make a difference by making it easier for inmates to connect with their families.

The core function of Pigeonly directly serves Hutson’s social mission. Pigeonly delivers photos from a relative’s phone to the inmate at a small price, and it provides a tool that allows prisoners to dial local numbers to reach relatives across the country, rather than making expensive long-distance calls that would deplete limited resources.

Leaders tie business functions to the mission

Rolf, Horowitz and Hutson built innovative organizations focused on using new ideas and methods to solve common problems. The mission is the guiding star, but the tactics aren’t dictated by past practices.

In this approach, the social mission of the business naturally trickles down to people at all levels of the organization. For a mid-level marketing associate at Pigeonly, for example, getting more people to use the product means addressing the isolation of prisoners on a larger scale. For an operations associate at the Freelancers Union, delivering a more efficient health plan means helping freelancers and their families achieve stability through reliable healthcare.

When you tie your mission directly to your core business functions, you and your team can focus on effectively delivering high-quality goods and services.

Integrate social entrepreneurship into your company culture

When a company builds innovation and entrepreneurship into its culture, its mission guides that effort — from the CEO to the front desk. Here are three ways to build social responsibility into your company culture:

1. Focus on the mission. Let your core mission drive everything you do. TOMS Shoes began with the goal of matching every pair of shoes purchased with a new pair of shoes for a child in need. The company has since expanded to offering other products, but it’s focus is the same: helping people in need.

2. Reinforce the mission at all employee levels. As the leader, you need to speak directly to all employees so they understand the role the mission plays in the company.

Have conversations about the mission in meetings or through a company newsletter, and celebrate people who actively support the mission. For example, we’ve made it clear at our company that team members will never get pushback for spending too much time helping someone get Medicaid.

3. Hire the right people. To execute a profitable business model that addresses big social problems, you need to hire the right people. You need people who are creative and dedicated enough to take on the challenge of building a business that’s committed to a social mission.

The demand for jobs at companies that serve a larger purpose is growing, especially as more Millennials enter the workforce. Keeping social responsibility at the core of your company’s daily functions will prove to be an incredibly useful recruitment, engagement, and retention tool. Although it might take some adjustment to build social responsibility into your already established company culture, it will lead to a better business in the long run — trust me.

Image credit: Flickr/Yoel Ben-Avraham

Benjamin Geyerhahn is an experienced entrepreneur, a healthcare policy expert, and a member of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Health Benefit Exchange Regional Advisory Committee. He is the founder and CEO of BeneStream, which uses a combination of technology and a multilingual call center to guide employers and employees through the Medicaid enrollment process.

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