Keynote Address: Business for Good Awards

The 1st Annual Business of Good awards were held on March 4, 2020. Organized by BCBusiness, the Business for Good awards is an opportunity to show off the steps local companies are taking to make British Columbia a better place to live, work and play. Both private and public sector organizations are welcome to apply, provided they exist for a purpose beyond philanthropy. The winners, chosen by a panel of judges, including our very own Mary Ellen Scaafsma, were announced.

The Social Purpose Institute (SPI) was grateful to have several cohort members from Innovators and Implementers represented in the nominee pool.

Mary Ellen was also asked to deliver the keynote address to a room full of business leaders. Here are her remarks:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to this incredible crowd of business leaders who are here to celebrate an enhanced role of business in society – business for good!

As you heard – I am the Director of the Social Purpose Institute at United Way. No surprise – I want to talk to you about this swiftly emerging business driver called Social Purpose in Business.

Back in June 2016, I was really nervous. We had invited 25 business leaders to a full-day workshop about Social Purpose. Now, at this time Social Purpose was little known and there were perhaps one or two business articles per year about this hint of a new trend for businesses. But Businesses with longstanding relationships with United Way of the Lower Mainland (UWLM) were chomping at the bit for more – more involvement in the issues, more than only philanthropy and volunteering – more of the business aimed at creating a better world!  These businesses intuitively knew – that much like the green movement that proved to be good for business and good for the environment – that doing more social good through doing business would also yield incredible societal and business benefits.

So, back to June 2016 we asked a lot – a full day away from their desks from these 25 business people. We brought in the CEO of MEC, an SVP from Vancity, a VP and senior members of her team from TELUS to speak to how they had or were evolving their business models to Purpose.

My concerns?

  • What if they all thought it was a waste of their time?
  • What if they pooh-poohed the idea of United Way delving into this space?

It was a risk!

Well, I am happy to report (and again, you’re an astute bunch – so you likely guessed) that by noon that – participants were standing up saying “Yes – Social Purpose is a thing, businesses will all need to get onboard, we don’t know how to do it, and United Way can help!”

Phew! What a relief and also – yes, we were on to something!

From then on – that became my passion and I was fortunate to have the leading Canadian expert on Social Purpose, Coro Strandberg – working with us. Since then the S-P-I has engaged hundreds of local businesses and their employees on Social Purpose, and we are working at a very in depth level with cohorts of 8-10 businesses, totaling 28 companies, to define, articulate and activate their Social Purpose.  Now, there are one or two business articles per week about the importance of Social Purpose to the future of business, not the 1-2 a year like before. People like Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock investments – for three years in a row now – are telling businesses that to be successful, to get BlackRock investment and to even survive in the future, businesses must adopt a societal reason for being – customers and employees are demanding it.

So kudos to those 25 people in 2016 – they had a super power to see the future that we are in today!  

What, exactly is social purpose?

Social Purpose in Business is where a company defines their reason for being in societal terms, and they place that purpose at the core of their business so it becomes the engine that powers the business and contributes to a better world. Companies who have a social purpose as a lens on all that they do, by the very act of doing their business are simultaneously creating significant and enduring social change.  A Social Purpose Company doesn’t change its business, but changes the focus of and the reason it is in business and brings all of its competencies and assets to bear on the societal or environmental issue on which it can have the most impact, because it relates directly to their business.

Hopefully the reason UW got into this is becoming clear. Now we can go beyond effective investment of donor dollars to build healthy, caring and inclusive communities – and we can help create new powerhouse engines for good within the corporate sector! Wow!

You may be thinking this yourselves – and early on we were told in no uncertain terms while this does feel good on the heartstrings and seem like the right things to do – in order to convince CEOs and Business owners that this is a good decision, we also had to show how it would influence the bottom line. They are, after all – businesses – and need profits to survive – they aren’t charities or social enterprises.  We needed to show them the business case for adopting a Social Purpose.

Fair enough.

We did the research and indeed – evidence shows, and is showing more and more – that companies can do good through a Social Purpose and it is – indeed –  good for business.

There are several ways Social Purpose is good for business. In Oct 2018, I was at an Economic Forecast event in Surrey – and the Chief Economist of the BDC was speaking about the labour market growth. The fact was, at that time there was no growth – it was flat and projected to be shrinking over time. Competition for talent and labour – no matter what your business is – is getting more and more pronounced. Employee attraction and retention is key – and we also know that the next generations of workers are looking for purpose and meaning in their work beyond a pay cheque. Social Purpose is proving a key way to create this work culture that draws good employees. Another benefit of Social Purpose is customer attraction, retention and best yet – loyalty. In this age of social media – where businesses can either be called out or receive positive accolades in an instant – spreading like wildfire through cyperspace  – it also is imperative to connect on a  deeper level with the consumer, to resonate with their values through how you operate your business – with Purpose.

We have a great example of yet another benefit of social purpose, from one of our programs.  Companies with a Social Purpose have a new North Star – something they are focused on and that the business is driving towards – all employees sharing that clarity and the long view. One of the first companies who worked with the SPI to define and articulate their Social Purpose discovered the significant benefits of this. As they defined their Social Purpose, they were also going through a strategic planning cycle. They found – that through their clear and aspirational Social Purpose – looking at their business strategies through this Social Purpose decision lens – that they were able to decrease the number of previous priorities from 80 down to 20!  That is 60 things they thought they had to do that no longer served their Purpose! By eliminating the things that did not serve their Purpose, they now had room, had space, to innovate in ways they could not before – around their Purpose, thinking strategically about how to drive the company towards it and grow. Social Purpose increases innovation! 

There are still more business benefits of Social Purpose – Access to Capital and increased financial performance (a la Larry Fink); strengthening the operating context in which a company does business; strong stakeholder relationships and new partnerships; the list goes on. It becomes a business’ ‘North Star’ to help companies navigate turbulent times – and we are, indeed in turbulent times!

When I was asked to be a on the judging panel for this Award I jumped on it. It is my passion and the purpose of the SPI to grow business for good. I wanted to learn about more companies who were doing great things in our communities, for their employees and for our environment!  Sure enough, there were many who were nominated who are doing so much good in our communities and I commend you all for that! 

I’m not going to lie – I also wanted find those examples of companies who have raised their game and started to behave like Social Purpose companies, elevating what they do and really who they are at their core to the next iteration of CSR – Social Purpose. Social Purpose the powerful way for business to having a deep and enduring impact on society – both social and environmental, within the company as well as where they operate and have influence. It is my hope that everyone here is motivated by the winners today – who are, or are on their way to Social Purpose – to raise their game, consider going deeper into Purpose and to take the leap. There is demonstrable value for businesses in doing this and truthfully, all signs point to it becoming a new business imperative; no longer optional and nice to have.  Wouldn’t you rather be ahead of the game, than racing to catch up?

In case you want to learn more from local business leaders who I personally know are doing this and doing it wholeheartedly – there are several companies here who are actively working on defining, clearly articulating and bringing to life their own business’ social purpose. I know this because they are doing it as part of the Social Purpose Institute. 

So that is my challenge to you today. Look into Social Purpose, consider it for your business and begin to engage internally and externally to clearly identify what your business uniquely brings to help create a better world for all. There are no losers in social purpose, it is truly one of those win-wins.

And this isn’t just business for good, it is good for business.

Thank you!

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