The Year of Purpose: Stepping Up and Out


In December 2016 I wrote an opinion piece called “Will the Private Sector Pass the Test?” which hypothesized that despite – or perhaps due to – the fact that the newly elected U.S. leadership planned to reduce regulation and deprioritize its responsibility to the environment and society, the private sector would increase their advocacy and investment in Purpose (CSR, social and environmental issues). 

My hypothesis seems to have been borne out, as many would say that 2017 was the year of Purpose. From the unprecedented response to the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement, to responding to renewed tensions around race and mass shootings in Las Vegas, Texas and New York, to the unrelenting spate of natural disasters that began in late summer, company after company stepped up and out, advocating for change and often providing financial support.

Now, nearly a month into the new year, two questions remain: how much more will the private sector commit and will the new tax plan propel companies to step up and out even more?

There have already been promising signs: Walmart announced an increase in its minimum wage to $11 an hour and is offering a one-time cash bonus, based on length of service, of up to $1,000, and expanded maternity and parental leave benefits (full disclosure, they also announced significant closing of Sam’s Club stores on the same day). Wells Fargo, Boeing and many others announced a $1000 bonus. Blackrock recently issued a compelling set of statements in support of corporate responsibility telling corporate America it must have a “sense of purpose” and “the time has come for a new model of shareholder engagement — one that strengthens and deepens communication between shareholders and the companies that they own.”

As a long-time advocate of public private partnerships, I find it exciting that 2018 is shaping up to be an even stronger year of Purpose. However, with so much focus on the role companies can play in social and environmental issues, the bar has been raised in terms of stakeholder expectations. This means companies need to be strategic about how they define and communicate their Purpose.

Here are five ways companies can pass the Purpose test…

Don’t stray too far from your core business:
There are so many causes in need of support that it can be tempting to align with issues that are emotionally connected to an individual or group of people. Commitment to a Purpose is a long-term endeavor; therefore it needs to align with a company’s business or it will be difficult to support over time and challenging to communicate why the company cares about the issue.

Use data to determine your niche:
Identifying and communicating a company’s Purpose requires the same research and discipline as introducing a new product line… and for the latter, any good marketer is not going to “guess” at how best to attract its customer. So why would you guess at what your Purpose should be?

Do your homework:
We have seen several examples of companies advocating for change around critical issues, yet the same company has not actually addressed the issue internally. Make sure you are living your defined Purpose before you ask others to follow suit.

Communicate smartly:
No matter how tempting, communicate internally before you start telling your external stakeholders about your Purpose. Your employees are your ambassadors. When you get them excited and on board, your external communications will be that much easier.

Be willing to take risk:
Don’t be afraid to take a stand. Companies don’t have to be perfect, but they must be honest. As expectations continue to grow around the role companies must play in addressing social and environmental issues, those companies who take a stand will win in the end.

A year ago no one could have anticipated all the critical issues and dramatic changes that rocked 2017, and the same holds true for the new year. But companies that are rooted in Purpose and approach it strategically will be able to rise to the challenge – in the moment, and over the long term.