The Power of Purpose: Insights from Two Leading Social-Purpose Businesses

By Daius Steiner, BBA Candidate, Curriculum Change Coordinator at Re_Generation

May 25, 2023

Everyone has guiding principles or a set of beliefs that influence everyday actions and behaviours. Organizations can also benefit from standards that direct their operations and justify the need for conducting business. When directed at making the world better, this is known as a social purpose—a corporation’s North Star. Coro Strandberg and I were engaged by United Way BC Social Purpose Institute to speak to Richard Kouwenhoven, Hemlock Printers CEO, and Maureen Young, VP of Social Purpose at Coast Capital, to understand how their organizations’ social purpose guides their business roadmap. This blog highlights practices for describing, strengthening, and justifying a social purpose statement to support your business’s journey toward successfully doing the same. Read the case studies from Coast Capital and Hemlock Printers and learn from their unique implementation process.

Describing a Social Purpose

The meaning of a social purpose is consistent across organizations, but how these statements are employed varies. For instance, Hemlock Printers’ social purpose is to “create connections, build community, and inspire actions that safeguard the health of the world’s forests.”. It is part of their unique value proposition and supports their vision of being “the most progressive and sustainable printer provider in America”, according to Richard Kouwenhoven. On the other hand, Coast Capital exists to “build better futures together.”. The credit union uses this purpose to harness the “business model needed to tackle complex and systemic issues faced today”, as described by Maureen Young. As such, a social purpose aligned with a business’s services or products can help drive positive change.

Strengthening a Social Purpose

Businesses can strengthen their social purpose through a bottom-up approach to developing, implementing, and measuring, which ensures the company creates value for all its stakeholders.

First, building a strong internal understanding of a social purpose can help make a case for it externally. Management can engage their employees throughout the development phase. For example, Hemlock Printers’ leadership team developed social purpose objectives in a strategic planning session. Conversely, Coast Capital built their social purpose into all areas of the organization before engaging external stakeholders to collaborate on advancing it. In both companies, creating a solid social-purpose foundation helped offer future value beyond the organization.

Similarly, organizations can employ a participatory approach to implementing their social purpose to ensure everyone understands its significance. Hemlock Printers involved multiple people throughout the implementation process to ensure responsibility for its success extended beyond one individual. Coast Capital hosted an internal event called the Social Purpose Implementation Challenge, which helped employees understand their role in bringing the social purpose to life. For both organizations, increased involvement throughout this step instilled accountability for realizing their social purpose.

Additionally, companies can measure the impact of their social purpose by understanding the essential elements to stakeholders and developing metrics to measure progress toward achieving them. Before completing social purpose performance measurements, Coast Capital engaged their value chain by conducting research, consulting with stakeholders, and speaking with subject-matter experts. This process ensured that social purpose goals included in the corporate strategy aligned with stakeholder expectations and built upon their expertise and insights. As such, prioritizing external actors’ expectations when measuring a social purpose increases the value a company creates for them.

Justifying a Social Purpose

Further, organizations can leverage their social purpose to respond to evolving societal and environmental landscapes and create new employee value propositions.

Business decisions are becoming more complex across various areas; organizations can determine the most appropriate choices by adhering to their social purpose. For instance, Hemlock Printers’ social purpose influences marketing, supply chain management, engagement, and industry relationships. Coast Capital also recognized the relevance of their social purpose in decision-making; they are now about to pilot a social purpose decision lens which will embed such considerations in routine decisions and activities.

Lastly, the incoming generation of employees is eager to work for companies whose values align with environmental and social responsibility. For instance, Hemlock’s Richard Kouwenhoven, claims Hemlock draws in prospective employees because of their purpose and sustainability leadership. Similarly, Maureen Young at Coast Capital shared that people are attracted to the organization because of their commitment to making a difference. Business leaders of tomorrow have a unique set of expectations; adopting a social purpose is an attested approach to responding to this change.

Closing Thoughts

In summary, the primary objective of conducting business can no longer be profit maximization.

Organizations can express their raison d’être with a social purpose developed through a participatory approach to ensure it creates value for all stakeholders. Ultimately, we all have a role to play in the transition toward a just and sustainable economy; businesses can contribute to achieving this collective objective by conducting business in a way that catalyzes a brighter future.

Learn more about social purpose implementing through the Social Purpose Practices Kit and connect with the SPI to find out how you can define and implement your social purpose!

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