Corporate World 2019: Does the Future Look Friendly?

Published on January 11, 2019

Are corporations sociopathic or socially-purposeful? Just over 15 years ago the film The Corporation decried the pathological nature of corporate life. Its argument channeled worldwide concerns that business was a scourge on the planet.

Now it’s 2019, and the producers might have reason to be more optimistic if they saw what’s going on with a growing number of companies that believe creating a better world should be their enduring reason for being. It’s called “social purpose”, and over a dozen BC companies are on an adventure with the United Way’s Social Purpose Institute to define or refine the humanitarian reason their organization exists.

These adventurous companies are on the path to articulating their social purpose and scaling it through their business models:

Construction and Property Development

  • Lafarge BC
  • Chandos Construction
  • Hollyburn Properties

Printing and Office Supplies

  • Web Express
  • Hemlock Printers
  • Mills Basics
  • Royal Printers

Service Companies

  • LGM Financial
  • Novex Couriers
  • Traction on Demand

Consumer-Facing

  • TransLink
  • Salt Spring Coffee
  • Coast Outdoors
  • Westcoast Sightseeing

Environmental Solutions Companies

  • Recycling Alternative
  • Encorp Pacific

Their work is based on research into the definition of social purpose and the business case for social purpose I conducted for the United Way over the past two years. 

These 16 companies are charting a path to redefine the purpose of business in society, starting in Greater Vancouver and expanding from there. The new United Way Social Purpose Institute is helping them along, every step of the way. 

As Richard Kouwenhoven, CEO of Hemlock Printers and one of the innovator companies, stated: “The process so far has really helped us refocus our organization – the outcome of our efforts will be a simple and concise mission, vision and purpose which will really help guide our decision-making in the years ahead.”

Recently, the United Way and four of these innovating companies joined forces to hear from two dozen “critical friends” on how to enhance and scale their social purpose efforts. The critical friends, community and business leaders in Greater Vancouver, asked:

  • What is new with your social purpose?
  • What does the future world look like? What changes do you want?
  • If you were to be successful, what would the outcome be?
  • How do your core products accelerate the change you seek to create?
  • What was the inspiration for the founders in starting the company?

These critical friends cautioned that: “When a statement is too generic, it can be challenging for employees to connect to it and for the entire organization to be galvanized by that social purpose.”

Below is a list of criteria that critical friends look for in a social purpose statement that creates value for the company and its stakeholders. Companies developing or enhancing their social purpose can learn from this advice:

Social Purpose Criteria Does Your Social Purpose Demonstrate These Qualities? Does Your Social Purpose Align to These Principles?
Business relevance Provides a direct connection to the business; it fits with the business model, value proposition and products Your purpose is connected to your business model; it addresses your products and services; your purpose showcases the products you’re offering your customers
Legacy story There is a direct link to why the business was founded; it demonstrates the story of legacy; there is a tie to your company’s historical roots Find and tie to your company’s legacy story
Bold commitment The statement is bold and aspirational Say what you are targeting and committing to; clarify the change you are seeking, the legacy you are trying to create
Clear definition The objectives are clear; there is a clear purpose, it is easy to “get it” Clarify what the words mean; thoroughly define what each word means; don’t be vague, have a focus; answering why you exist should be clear to any third party
Be simple Demonstrate simplicity, the statement should be to the point and no confusion; each word should have meaning Don’t have too many words or concepts; but don’t be overly simple: if the statement is too brief it could risk being seen as a marketing slogan
Avoid generic Make sure each word stands for something and is compelling Don’t be too generic or broad; make sure your social purpose couldn’t belong to any company or industry
Forward- looking Ensure your social purpose is a flexible platform – it should be broad enough to work now and expand/change/adapt in coming years Your social purpose should be used to drive your business forward; the statement needs to create a lens/filter for decision-making
Humanistic change Focus on accelerating positive change and desire to inspire action Address your negative impacts in the statement (e.g. environmental footprint); use more humanizing words
Creative uniqueness Out of the box thinking Purpose should reflect what will be unique to your organization, what you will be known for
Address industry Your purpose should acknowledge big problems in your industry and demonstrate how you are prepared to tackle them; it should recognize that the status quo is not sustainable / acceptable Tackle the big issues in your industry; demonstrate your interest in changing the industry
Authentic language The authenticity of the purpose Make sure the purpose reflects who you are; make sure it is not a slogan, or your CSR or corporate citizenship focus; don’t use buzzwords, avoid motherhood statements

This is a watershed moment for these companies and their stakeholders that can drive both business growth and the potential for social good. What better way for your company to start a new year than with a project to define your organization’s social purpose and what it stands for?

For more, check out the United Way’s Social Purpose Institute and its resources.

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