Accelerating Social Purpose: Insights from Corporate Knights’ Inaugural Ratings
By Mike Rowlands, President & CEO at Junxion Strategy
November 15, 2022
Corporate Knights recent publication presents insights into how 34 Canadian social purpose companies are implementing and operationalizing their purpose—and reaping the benefits.
Business leaders (CEOs and executives) from seven of those companies based in British Columbia recently connected to talk about what’s inspiring them, what they’re learning about social purpose implementation, and opportunities to collaborate to accelerate social purpose. Convened by the United Way BC Social Purpose Institute, and moderated by Coro Strandberg, advisor to United Way British Columbia, the companies shared their belief in the social purpose imperative.
The Corporate Knights report “was created to share best practices and recommendations for companies seeking to implement their social purpose.” It comes at a time when the momentum toward social purpose in business is growing—significantly. Maureen Young, VP Social Purpose at Coast Capital Savings, which received ‘Platinum’ level in the report framed social purpose in this way: “These are very challenging times for business and society. We’ve got lots of really negative news headlines and difficult moments we’ve had to navigate. Purpose is fueling something that’s more optimistic, more focused on finding solutions, and it’s really resonating.”
Social Purpose Momentum is Building
This was one of the most resonant themes during the conversation—that momentum is building to become an undeniable force in business. Social purpose is “increasingly becoming mainstream,” says Peter ter Weeme, Chief Social Purpose Officer and VP Player Experience at BCLC, which he notes is the largest contributor of non-tax revenues to the Government of British Columbia. BCLC also achieved a Platinum rating.
Patrick Nangle, the CEO of MODO, the car sharing cooperative that is this year celebrating its 25th anniversary agreed: “There’s something happening in the world right now…. It’s more important today than ever that companies get behind doing things that are solving societal issues.” He’s encouraged by the momentum.
Companies’ commitments to social purpose inspire teams; surveys show that most people would prefer to work for companies that do good. Committing to a social purpose enables companies to hire better employees. And leadership is key: Each of these companies has strong, thoughtful leaders in the c-suite that have championed social purpose, pushed thinking forward, and propelled their companies to this level of success.
Social purpose helps companies to thrive.
Doing good is being recognized today as a way for companies to thrive. It’s no longer seen as a hindrance or something to only be performed at face value.
Expectations Have Shifted
Chris Peacock of Uncommon Purpose (formerly part of Traction On Demand), a Silver rated company, observed that clients, investors, and partners are now demanding—even “commanding!”—companies also serve society. “This is no longer just a way of differentiating from competition”.
The gap between ‘say’ and ‘do’ varies from one company to the next.
Of course, as Corporate Knights points out, “while companies are increasingly stating a social purpose, not all companies are as successful when it comes to implementing it. In other words, the gap between ‘say’ and ‘do’ varies from one company to the next.”
Unlocking Strategic Opportunities
TELUS, one of Canada’s largest corporations, is firmly committed to its social purpose—” to leverage its global leading technology and compassion to drive social change and enable remarkable human outcomes.” This is itself a remarkable statement that conveys a profound shift from a focus on shareholder returns to a broader understanding of the common good—a commonly cited shift by social purpose companies.
Patrick Barron, TELUS VP Corporate Citizenship and Community Affairs talked us through how the company’s social purpose is informing strategy. TELUS’s social purpose manifests through enabling human connectivity, revolutionizing healthcare, transforming our food system, leading in sustainability, and community investment. “Health care and food system security are whole lines of business around our social purpose. It’s changing our strategy and moving us into action.” And TELUS was recognized at the Gold level of Corporate Knights’ rating—a significant achievement for such a large company.
Partnerships for Impact
Barron also named another common refrain—that ambitious social purpose agendas tend to spur collaboration. “Government can’t do this [social impact] work alone anymore. Public, private, and not-for-profit partnerships are emerging.”
Purpose unlocks opportunities that reach far beyond the company.
Richard Kouwenhoven, the CEO of Hemlock Printers (recognized at the Platinum level) explained that in pursuit of their social purpose, which is ‘to create connections, build community and inspire actions that safeguard the health of the world’s forests’, he and his colleagues are “working on the paper supply chain with other companies and NGOs.” It’s work that is “scaling well beyond Hemlock.”
LGM Financial, a leading Canadian financial products and services firm, and a Platinum rated company, has also struck partnerships in pursuit of its social purpose to ‘accelerate responsible mobility for all.’ They brought automotive dealers together to mount a campaign against distracted driving, and they helped create Canada’s first hydrogen fueling station. Amanda Tracey explained that their approach at LGM has been to “look at the automotive industry for disruptive trends that could change it for the better—and then to identify ways to lead that change.”
The Challenges of Implementation
Of course, it’s not all smooth driving. Translating an ambitious social purpose to real and meaningful action is complicated and hard—which was acknowledged by all seven in the group.
Communications & Stakeholder Engagement: “What I’m learning is that it’s hard!” declared BCLC’s Peter ter Weeme. Internally to the organization and externally, it’s about “overcoming skepticism.” Many in community read companies’ social purpose ambitions as platitudes and quickly accuse them of glossing over the vital work that needs to be undertaken to address “the converging crises of so many kinds” that are impacting the world.
Transparency & Accountability: As a member-owned cooperative, Modo is particularly interested to ensure progress toward its social purpose is disclosed. It’s a challenge for many organizations, given the complexities involved in achieving a social purpose. “TELUS has been doing this work for 20 years or more—though the language has changed,” noted Barron. “We’re only winning if we can drive financial success and social impact.”
Governance & Management: Hemlock’s Kouwenhoven shared that “setting goals around your purpose is hard.” He and his colleagues have learned to “maintain a focus on the social purpose value proposition.” If their interpretation of the social purpose into day-to-day action drives value for customers, staff, and other stakeholders—including the planet—then they’re on the right track. LGM’s CEO, Drew Collier, “played a key role in championing the social purpose.” As Tracey pointed out, adoption of social purpose must “start at the top.” Maureen Young noted that the Coast Capital “board is starting to think about social purpose risks and how [they’re] managing and mitigating them.”
Measurement & Evaluation: Might purpose be embedded more completely in performance measurement—particularly in the role of the CEO and boards of directors? It’s “important foundational work to embed social purpose in values and roles,” said Young, suggesting that an effectively implemented social purpose affects every employee’s role and responsibilities.
Putting it All into Context
There is so much to do in Canada, as we navigate our way out of the COVID-19 pandemic and through the housing, affordability, and opioid crises—among other great challenges like the climate emergency. We’re also in real danger of failing to meet 2030 commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals.
These companies are showing their peers and society what’s possible when we think beyond the status quo. Patrick Barron told us TELUS has years of proof that doing right by the community is good for business. Since 2000, their value has expanded from $900 million to $10 billion. He gives significant credit to the company’s social purpose.
Social purpose drives more customers, more engagement, and more value.
The group believes strongly that we need to widen the circle of CEOs, companies, and business organizations willing to join us on this journey. There is no downside: by clarifying and committing to their social purpose, companies only do better, because a well-implemented social purpose creates more customers, more value, more engagement, and more loyalty.
Work is also accelerating to build on the successes of social purpose businesses like these toward a social purpose economy—an economy powered by the pursuit of long-term well-being for all, in which business, regulatory and financial systems foster an equitable, flourishing, resilient future.
These organizations—and their peers in the Corporate Knights listing—are trailblazers. Will you follow their lead? How will your business make the world better?
Mike Rowlands is President & CEO at Junxion Strategy, a social purpose company that exists ‘to accelerate the shift to the purpose economy.’
|BCLC||Peter ter Weeme, Chief Social Purpose Officer and VP Player Experience||To generate win-wins for the greater good.|
|Coast Capital Savings||Maureen Young, VP Social Purpose||Build better futures together by unlocking financial opportunities.|
|Hemlock Printers||Richard Kouwenhoven, CEO||Create connections, build community and inspire actions that safeguard the health of the world’s forests.|
|LGM Financial||Amanda Tracey, Senior Communications Specialist||To accelerate responsible mobility for all.|
|MODO||Patrick Nangle, CEO||To transform communities by connecting people with places in a way that’s affordable, convenient, inclusive, and sustainable.|
|TELUS||Patrick Barron, VP Corporate Citizenship and Community Affairs||Leverage our global leading technology and compassion to drive social change and enable remarkable human outcomes.|