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Emily Kane Miller headshot

Memo to Leadership: Defining Corporate Purpose Is a Non-Delegable Duty

An alarming trend is emerging: Business leaders are being seduced by the notion that corporate purpose can be identified by majority vote.

Growing up, when my brothers and I wanted to float a risky proposition to our parents, we would bring it to them by committee. “We all think we should skip washing the dishes tonight,” the three of us would venture. We found safety in numbers — but not often success.

It is exciting to see a clear increase in the number of businesses looking to “do good.” 

That said, powerful, value-add corporate social impact can only be accomplished when the work is tailored to that business — its core competencies and product lines; its local community; and the issues that are key to its employees and stakeholders. To get there, it’s critical to find a social impact north star that informs all of the work. This takes time, perspective, expertise and leadership.  

An alarming trend’s emerging: Leaders are being seduced by the notion that corporate purpose can be identified by majority vote.

Instead of carefully charting a course and planting a flag where their company’s resources are best suited to make an impact, decision-makers are outsourcing this decision-making, seeking safety in numbers. 

The message is everywhere. Want to lock in your corporate giving budget? Take a straw poll of your employees. Need to dial in this year’s social impact and volunteerism themes? Have a committee work on it, on top of their day job. Unsure whether to weigh in on a key issue of the day? Use an app to have the whole company vote on an engagement strategy.  

Imagine a company facing a major supply chain issue commissioning an employee-wide survey to determine the solve, or the Chief Marketing Officer - tasked with creating a Super Bowl ad - wandering from cubicle to cubicle in the finance department seeking suggestions for the storyboard. 

Laughable, right? 

Here’s the very disappointing bottom line. The very act of soliciting ideas from across the company is an admission that executives have no real plan. Unfortunately, this also means there are no associated key performance indicators or benchmarks related to the work. Without a focus on outcomes, it is nearly impossible to drive meaningful impact.  

So why would leaders resort to the straw poll model in the first place? The first reason is that leadership simply has no idea what to do. In this evolving landscape — many of today’s C-suite leaders do not have experience with strategic, successful impact work. That’s fine — simply admit it. And then bring in the right experience and expertise to help set up a powerful social impact effort for the long-term. 

The second reason is that leadership is trying to engage their employees, in a “two birds, one stone” approach. While this may seem appealing on its face, this approach actually blends two different goals, both of which deserve their own lane. Quality employee engagement is key to organizational success. Happy, dedicated employees are good for business. In the short-term, your team may appreciate selecting beneficiaries for corporate donations, but social impact is much bigger than cutting a check. When a company is a genuine pillar for good in a community, it creates value for the world and for the brand, and ultimately results in genuine employee engagement. Alternatively, when the impact is scattered and without focus, it will not likely result in long-term employee engagement or societal value. Simply put, blending the two is a quick way to fail at both.

The third most common reason is the most concerning — leadership is covering its own hide, insulating themselves from potential criticism should the work backfire later. Ironically, this model also carries high risk for the company with a tremendous potential to harm internal morale and tarnish brand reputation. Further, flimsy partnerships that don’t have the actual backing of leadership can create real harm to the communities and individuals being served. 

At a time when business and individual reputations can be damaged or destroyed in an instant, it’s understandable that companies want to play it safe. But caution should never supersede common sense. 

Here’s the good news: There’s an alternative path.

Senior leaders with a deep understanding of a company’s current and near-term assets and long-term social impact goals must direct the work. They can start by asking four key questions. First, in examining a business’s core mission, resources and talents, what social impact work is that organization best situated to support? Second, focusing on that issue, what are the organization’s “social impact superpowers”? Of course, there are dollars, but what else can the organization offer in big and small ways to plus-up the social impact efforts? Third, is this work additive, and does it elicit a sense of passion and pride? And finally, in 10 years’ time, what will the company’s key stakeholders — it’s employees, leadership, investors, customers and neighbors — be most proud of from a social impact perspective?

To be sure, leading from the top doesn’t mean disregarding the views of employees — quite the opposite. Once your social impact north star is identified, the social impact team should work closely with passionate employees and relevant employee resource groups (ERGs) regarding strategy and implementation. These team members’ insights and firsthand knowledge are invaluable. 

We all agree that our world is in dire need of fixing. If corporations are to be part of the solution — which I strongly believe they can and must be — the work must be strategic, effective, measured and well-managed. Anything less is, sadly, not going to accomplish much. 

Don’t believe me? Conduct a straw poll.

Interested in having your voice heard on 3p? Contact us at editorial@3BLMedia.com and pitch your idea for a guest article to us.

Image credit: Julia M Cameron via Pexels

Emily Kane Miller headshot

Emily Kane Miller is the Founder and CEO of Ethos Giving, a philanthropic services firm, and Ethos Tracking, a related social impact data management tool that allows businesses, nonprofits and foundations to more effectively track their impact. She also serves as a Scholar in Residence at The Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at the University of California's Marshall School of Business.

Read more stories by Emily Kane Miller