Entering a new decade reminds me of how I started the last one. I quit. More specifically, I quit a corporate structure that didn’t prioritize my wishes as an employee to be able to contribute to the greater good. As an accounting auditor, my manager asked me not to volunteer with the American Cancer Society in order to work on weekends. I certainly understood the time sensitivity of IRS-related filings and how critical they were to the success and trustworthiness of the business, but I felt that eliminating cancer as a life-threatening disease was also important and deserved at least part of my attention.
So, with the knowledge that my desire for social good work did not align with corporate America’s need to maximize shareholder value, I decided to spend a year traveling and volunteering with social enterprises. The journey helped me realize the biggest unaddressed need in global development: a lack of investment in the people behind ideas.
There is no shortage of social impact projects that need professionals with skills. It’s called the “human capacity gap." This lack of skills is a big contributor to the pioneer gap, which shows that foundation and impact investment capital likes to flow to new moonshot ideas, and then to scaling organizations, not to ideas in the middle.
Those stuck in the pioneer gap (aka the Startup Valley of Death), don’t have access to the financial capital they need to grow. Their team members also don’t have access to resources to build their skills and know-how to make it to the next stage and continue their work.
Not only do business ideas stumble, but professional growth for those working in these organizations halts, too.
In retrospect, this should not have come as a surprise to me, as the same lack of investment in people is recognized in corporate and governmental environments. One of the top voices in corporate leadership development, Josh Bersin, claims the model is broken. Our global economy does not have a good history of investing in the people behind products and ideas, but that is starting to change.
My contribution to this change was co-founding MovingWorlds, which helps people grow as world-positive leaders through engaging in social impact projects that build on their skills while stretching them to grow. We found a self-sustainable way to mobilize people with skills to help share their skills with the teams behind world-changing ideas. In the process, those that give their skills are able to grow as leaders and identify more ways to create positive changes back at work. We’ve partnered with corporations like Microsoft, Tableau, Kering, Avanade, Bookin and more who believe that working professionals have the skills and know-how to help scale social impact ideas when financial capital is too risk averse to support the needed change.
In January 2019, Larry Fink, CEO of one of the world’s largest investment banks, BlackRock, declared that clients must “contribute to society, or risk losing our support." A few months later, the Business Roundtable modified a 20-year-old mission statement on the purpose of business, moving away from outdated thinking that businesses only exist to maximize shareholder wealth and asserting that they must also exist to benefit their employees, supply chain, and the communities where they operate.
The 180 CEOs that signed the Business Roundtable's new purpose statement—including from Amazon and PepsiCo—realize they no longer have a choice.
According to Deloitte’s 2019 Human Capital Trends annual report, this year marks the rise of the social enterprise, where a business model combines profit-making through activities that respect and support the environment and its stakeholder network. According to Deloitte, the “Intensifying combination of economic, social, and political issues is forcing HR and business leaders to learn to lead the social enterprise—and reinvent their organizations around a human focus.”
At a human level, this makes sense. People want to know their work matters, and perhaps there is no better way than connecting employees to the societal benefit of their work to help them see how their company, and the work they do within it, matters. As PwC observed in a recent report entitled Making work more meaningful, “Employees today are looking for a work experience that is optimized for meaningful work and personal fulfillment, and encourages a growth mindset and generosity."
In its 2019 Global Trust Barometer, Edelman explained: "Employees are ready and willing to trust their employers, but the trust must be earned through more than ‘business as usual.’ Employees’ expectation that prospective employers will join them in taking action on societal issues (67 percent) is nearly as high as their expectations of personal empowerment (74 percent) and job opportunity (80 percent).”
Connecting employees to the societal benefit of their work shows them that their job and company matter. It also enables learning. The world’s largest study on purpose at work from Imperative shows that employees already want to do this, and it becomes the job of the company to make it easier for employees to find opportunities—and reward them for doing so.
And herein lies the tectonic shift within companies. No longer can companies host a big giving campaign or mobilize employees for a global day of service in hopes of generating positive press and customer loyalty. Rather, companies are realizing that they actually have products, process, profits, partnerships and people that can be used in ways that contribute to the greater good. Furthermore, they are being pressured to make sure that these are delivered in ways that don’t propagate inequalities.
As Patagonia declares in its mission statement: “We know that our business activity—from lighting stores to dyeing shirts—is part of the problem. We work steadily to change our business practices and share what we’ve learned. But we recognize that this is not enough. We seek not only to do less harm, but more good.”
At MovingWorlds, when we partner with companies that then mobilize employees to contribute to a social impact project with their core skills, we see that nearly all employees return with insights about how to improve their team’s collaboration and potentially even the company’s products. See the program we designed and operate for Microsoft, MySkills. This virtuous cycle repeats, with the added benefit that every employee who engages sees how the company is a real contributor to society, but then also sees ways to improve things at the company so that it can do even more.
Perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learned is that these employer-sponsored experiences are just the start of meaningful change. Certainly our data shows that the projects provide a meaningful impact to hosting organizations and to receiving volunteers, but the long-term impact is even more important.
By providing ongoing guidance, creating alumni communities and nurturing the creation of innovation reports, employees are emboldened to return home and work to create lasting change. As just one example, Ruchi, a product manager from eBay, returned from a social impact experience, and within two weeks, started working on a new pilot to help women artisans in disconnected communities find their way onto eBay, which has massive impact and ROI potential for all parties.
As 2020 comes into view, we know that the interest of employees to engage in social, civic and environmental factors will grow, and it will be up to companies to harness this energy for triple-bottom line performance—or suffer the losses that come with losing the best talent.
Image credit: You X Ventures/Unsplash