From Social Responsibility to Social Impact

August 21, 2017


“Across the board, there is a shift towards nailing colours to the mast and seeking to make a difference. Whatever your sphere of influence, from the local neighbourhood to wider fields, there is an increasing realisation that it’s no longer about relying on governments or institutions to set the standard for behaviour and principles, but about making a personal stand in everyday life.” —Viewpoint Magazine


Brands are part of those who seek to make a difference, and many brands are effectively using their power to make a positive impact in the world—and to differentiate themselves. I had the chance to talk with Viewpoint recently about the role of companies in social change:

‘A lot of companies say they’re happy to do something around a cause, but they they start to get nervous about the effect on their profit. But I think we’ve seen some shifts in this recently. The sports industry is starting to make a move. Last year in the States we saw the NBA move the All-Star game from Charlotte because of anti-LGBT legislation. We saw Lyft make a $1m commitment to the American Civil Liberties Union after the Muslim ban. We’ve seen Unilever take real steps to be more sustainable.’

‘It’s easier when you start a company today to say “our company is connected to this issue, our company cares about this, and this is how our business is going to serve this issue and move forward.” It’s much harder for companies that are established to figure out how they can get engaged with social impact in a way that’s authentic and meaningful, knowing that they have the baggage of how they’ve done business in the past. That’s not only about how they do it, but also about how they get permission from their stakeholders to do things that are not “business as usual” — to do things that will have an impact on the way that they work and will have an impact on the way that they make profit. To me, that’s really the hardest challenge.’

If you are working at a company that is interested in social impact work, how can your brand determine where to play, and what you should do? Purpose has developed two sets of questions: the first ensure you have a strong foundation, and the second help you move from a more traditional CSR approach to a social mission approach that is deeply connected to your brand.

Building a strong foundation:

Is this a real cause? The first test of your social impact approach is to determine whether you’re addressing a real problem or issue in the world. Racism, climate change, sexism, and poverty are real issues. Sadness, homesickness, blisters, and joy are not. Choosing a real issue demonstrates to your audience that you are serious about social impact and making a difference in the world—this isn’t just a marketing campaign.

What makes an issue real?

  1. It has a tangible current or future negative impact on a significant number of individuals.
  2. It’s not a factor of the human condition, and there is an element of injustice in whom it affects—members of certain groups, particularly those with less systemic power, are affected more than others.
  3. There is a structural basis to the problem—it is caused by society-wide decisions, policies, attitudes or other forces.
  4. There are systemic solutions and we can solve it at scale—including changing attitudes, behavior, policy or infrastructure to fix it.

One easy test is that real issues generally have established nonprofit organizations committed to solving the issue. If you are considering an issue and there are no potential nonprofit partners, this is a flag that you may be creating a cause to solve.

Are your efforts embraced by leadership? Are your core stakeholders aligned on the vision for a future where you’ve had an impact on this issue? What are they willing to put on the line to make an impact: Will they speak out? Will they risk profit? Will they see their work as incomplete if you don’t achieve your goal? Social change work can be hard, it can be unpopular, and it can be long. If you don’t have the commitment of your leadership, it will be hard to succeed.

Moving from corporate social responsibility to social mission:

Is the issue connected to your business? Does your brand have permission to speak about this issue, and does it make sense for your brand to weigh in? There is nothing wrong with doing good in something totally unrelated to your core business—and in fact, this is the foundation of much traditional corporate social responsibility work—but we believe that you can have more impact by ensuring the issue you’re fighting for is closely aligned with your core business. Why? You have more knowledge to give, you have more connections to mobilize, and you have more authority to speak on the topic. It also provides more value to your brand: the girls’ apparel company supporting the girls’ running programs? Yes. The yogurt brand supporting girls running? Lovely, but I don’t get it.

Does the work feel self-serving? The challenge of choosing an issue connected to your primary business has a catch, though: supporting a cause or working towards social impact can fall short if your audience sees the effort as simply a way for you to improve your own business environment. Consumers understand that you can do well by doing good, but there’s a limit. Your company can’t be the first to benefit. If you’re a solar company, the focus of your social impact campaign can’t be to educate consumers about the benefits of solar energy—that’s not social impact, that’s just marketing.

Is the issue relevant to your audience? If your primary audience doesn’t care about the issue, you miss out on using your work to more deeply connect with your audience, and to drive them to work with you to make an impact. As you envision your campaign, conduct some research with your audience on what they are passionate about–and how you and your brand can help them to make a difference.

These questions are just the starting point for determining how your brand can take a stand in the world, but they will help you to build a social impact campaign that has the power to make a real difference in the world—and build more reasons for your audience to choose you.

Anne Keenan Partner & Managing Director, Strategy and Partnerships