The End of Purpose-Washing

Blog post was written by Coro Strandberg, Social Purpose Advisor, Social Purpose Institute
Sep 13, 2021

With customers, employees and investors clamoring for it, more and more companies are proclaiming purpose pledges as their raison d’être and adopting purpose mantras in their marketing and public communications. But are they truly implementing their purpose? How will we know? How do we separate the bogus from the bona fide?

As companies scramble to create a purpose as their reason for existence, they will be accused of purpose-washing unless they act on it.

The Canadian Social Purpose Institute at United Way aims to put an end to purpose-washing, forever. I helped them develop this Social Purpose Assessment Tool designed to measure the degree to which companies have a compelling purpose, and how much the purpose is embedded in the company and across its relationships. In other words, to measure how truly committed they are to their purpose and where their gaps may lie – so they can address them.

This easily accessible tool sets out the baseline expectations that social purpose companies will have to exemplify or be pilloried in the court of public opinion. It includes 25 practices. Here are a dozen of them along with examples of five companies on their purpose path.

How does your company stack up on the Social Purpose Assessment Scorecard?

1. Purpose and Values

  • Our purpose is distinctive, motivating, and relevant to our business; it addresses a local or world societal need and concisely communicates why we exist.
  • Our values set out the behaviours that guide how we fulfill our purpose.
  • We have purpose goals, targets and metrics which are a key component of our corporate strategy.

Purpose Pioneer: Algonquin Power and Utilities, whose social purpose is to sustain energy and water for life, is cascading its social purpose through its corporate values: “Think creatively, do the right thing, and make a positive difference”, setting a corporate values performance bar there.

2. Governance and Leadership

  • Our leaders visibly demonstrate for our purpose, as champions, role models, mentors, and coaches to others on our purpose.
  • Purpose is a visible component of our rewards, recognition systems, promotions, and incentives.
  • Our board supports our purpose and monitors and discloses our progress on it through annual reports.

Purpose Pioneer: Maple Leaf Foods has a purpose to raise the good in food and a corresponding vision to become the most sustainable protein company on earth, transforming the world’s food system so that it can survive, and thrive, for generations to come. The Operating Section of the company’s 2020 Annual Report reports on the year-over-year sales and gross profits of its plant protein group, which, while smaller, compared favourably to the growth of its meat segment, at 19.5 per cent versus nine per cent respectively.

3. Culture and Operations

  • Purpose is a flourishing aspect of the corporate culture as measured by our employee engagement survey and by internal audits that assess alignment of practices with our purpose.
  • Our employees have the skills, knowledge, and confidence to activate our purpose at work.
  • Our organization structure reflects and helps deliver on our purpose.

Purpose Pioneer: Companies are starting to hire chief purpose officers. Two of note include the Chief Social Purpose Officer and VP Player Experience at BC Lotteries Corporation, a BC Crown corporation, and Chief Purpose and Inclusion Officer at PWC.  BCLC’s refreshed purpose is to create win-wins for the greater good and PWC’s purpose is to build trust in society and solve important problems.

4. Customers and Business Ecosystem

  • Our purpose is visible to customers at all touchpoints, and we engage them in helping us achieve our purpose.
  • We have taken a public stand on our purpose.
  • We collaborate with stakeholders on shared goals to advance our purpose.

Purpose Pioneer: Telus Corporation, a leading Canadian telecommunications company, has a social purpose to connect all Canadians for good. CEO Darren Entwistle has been an outspoken advocate for social capitalism, as seen in this 2020 tweet.

So, what can you do?

Look for purpose-driven companies to invest in. Look for purpose-driven companies to buy from. Look for purpose-driven companies to work for and look for opportunities to champion purpose to your employer. And ask the purpose-driven companies you know to complete this Social Purpose Assessment Tool without delay.

Attend this free webinar co-hosted by the Social Purpose Institute, GLOBE Series and Junxion Strategy on Monday October 4, 1 – 22 pm PST on “How to Build an Authentic Social Purpose Company, Avoid Purpose-Washing and Drive a Purpose Economy”. This is a deep dive into the Social Purpose Assessment Tool as a mechanism for authentic social purpose business. Attend and have your say on what is needed to guide businesses to be truly purpose-first. Read more and register here.

Do you want to become more engaged in the global pivot to purpose? Join the Propelling Purpose Summit November 17-18 and take in the session designed to further improve this tool so that companies can be held to account for their purpose pronouncements. Use this discount code to save 15% off the registration fee: SP-21.

We all have a role to play to close the purpose say-do gap and end purpose-washing now.

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