Rediscovering the new role that purpose-led companies can play in charities and general societal development
Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential; it will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders. In 2019, companies must ask themselves what role they play in the community. As others in the financial world follow, all sizes of business across the world will have no choice but to understand the value of being purpose-led, deciding and then designing their own meaningful path.
Where does this leave charities? Does it make them redundant? Charities exist for many reasons and will continue to, regardless–from the multi-issue global charities to those that are set up in memory of lost loved ones with a small, focused agenda, perhaps to fundraise for a hospital unit. “Purposeful” businesses will succeed most where profit and purpose align. We need them to create profit that allows society to prosper and for more good work to be done. The demand for the many services and support gaps that the charity sector fills now will continue in years to come. We can only create the world we want for the future through collaboration with others. Where civil society, governments, companies, and charities all come together, we make the most progress. We only have to look to the current plastics movement to see that.
As companies look to find their purpose, there are new skills they need to learn:
Empathy: Companies, and many people within them, understand empathy, but it hasn’t necessarily been at the forefront of driving business success. Consumer-focused companies are always striving to understand what the customers want or need, how they think, and what behaviors they demonstrate. This drives successful products. But empathy is also about sharing the feelings of another. What world (beyond your product) does the consumer want to see? How do they expect you as a company to act in order to create that world because you’re well placed to? Companies need to understand the issues facing society and the grassroots individuals blocked from achieving their potential by adversity every day, in order to truly understand what is needed to make change happen. They need to listen and empathize and empower those who know. The charity sector can teach companies to do noncommercial, nonjudgmental listening.
Movement/global campaigns: The nonprofit sector has traditionally been the heart of social change, giving voice to the voiceless and rights to those without. Companies have a history of successful campaigning and lobbying, often around economic agendas, but much less on driving the social agenda. Charities have long understood the need to collaborate and share a vision of a better world, how to work together, and bring the necessary skills sets to the table. Advocacy and policy change for a better society are often their purpose. They are the experts.
Helping the workforce to find meaning in work: It’s typically values-based decisions that lead people to work in the charity sector. It’s hard work, but meaningful and where people get to live their own sense of purpose. Charities and those who work in the sector understand that. They suffer the low pay and unglamorous offices, take on the emotional burden of their work, and continuously go the extra mile because it fulfills what drives them and moves one step closer to creating the world they want to see. Corporates want to unlock that purpose, discretionary effort, and understanding of the right thing to do, and the charity model can help them understand how to do that. For instance, telling stories about the “need,” closing the gap between employees and the people whose lives they aim to improve, and understanding that the best workforce are also made up of the people in society that we want to enable.
The need for mindset change
However, for charities to operate successfully in the new purpose-led landscape, it will involve a change in mind-set with a focus on sharing long-term goals alongside corporate partners. This is the biggest opportunity; to see the corporate world not just as a funder or gift-in-kind provider, but as a genuine partner. Currently, many businesses look for “charity partner of the year” opportunities, which involve a beauty parade and staff vote with the most popular winning. These can be lucrative and help fundraising directors breathe a massive sigh of relief about their targets. They raise awareness too, providing a critical route to marketing dollars that charities can’t afford.
Many of the partnerships are driven by short-term need. Charities struggle to imagine the long term; too often it’s an utter luxury given the firefighting every month. Pressures on funding, as more and more income is restricted and state funding is drying up, are driving the exact opposite of what impact we want in society. It’s driving short-termism.
So the opportunity for charities is to look for long-term goals for society and work out what is best positioned to help achieve them. Share the vision with the business world–or even better create it with them. A world that works for us all needs all of us to sculpt it. Charities should ensure they have a seat at the table for those conversations, and where they don’t, they should demand the seat or start a new table. Be brave and visionary and constructive enough to bite the hand that feeds you. The responsible business world should be asking you how to be more responsible.
There is no first and second place for profit and purpose–the future demands that we strive for both, regardless of the sector. Perhaps we won’t even see the future in sectors: We’ll all be socially responsible enterprises. We need “more worthy” profit-making entities and we need more long-term, commercially thinking charities. We all have a role to play in building a sustainable society, and the more we collaborate with each other, the greater the sense of purpose we can build throughout the entire world of work, unlocking individuals and organizations alike to build the society we want.