Five Pillars for Embedding Purpose Authentically into Business

By Zahid Torres-Rahman, Founder and CEO and Vittorio Cerulli, Challenge Director, Business Fights Poverty​

There is much talk about purpose, sustainability and business as “a force for good”, but is it for real or just rhetoric? ​In the build up towards BFPOx2019, Business Fights Poverty Founder, Zahid Torres-Rahman and Challenge Director Vittorio Cerulli reflect on the where the conversation around business purpose has got to, and where it needs to go next.

There is much talk about purpose, sustainability and business as “a force for good”, but is it for real or just rhetoric? The common ground between those who believe in the impact of purposeful business and those who question it is a desire for authentic action; the recognition that we need to move beyond words and into impact, beyond the rhetoric of purpose towards embedding it meaningfully and consistently across business.    

In partnership with GSK, Unilever and Visa, we are convening a conversation over the next few months about how we can embed purpose authentically into business, as part of a new Business Fights Poverty Challenge on Purpose. We are looking to gather together the latest thinking, along with practical examples of what has worked and what hasn’t. We invite you to share your ideas and perspectives.

At the centre of the Challenge sits our flagship event, Business Fights Poverty Oxford 2019 on 11 July at Said Business School, University of Oxford, with over 300 professionals, practitioners and experts focused on how purpose can be embedded into business, exploring where progress is being made and where efforts are falling short. A great deal of thinking and action is already underway, and many of those at the frontier of this work at the event.

From our own experience and based on initial research, there appear to be at least five pillars for embedding purpose.

1. Define

The starting point is to identify a powerful purpose that is built on the company values and beliefs, and that is connected deeply to its core business. At the same time, this purpose must be relevant: addressing a societal tension that is meaningful to the company’s consumers, employees and other stakeholders. The most advanced companies have used an internal and external conversation about their purpose to drive better innovation, and a deeper understanding of how they can amplify their positive impact through their core products, services, business models and technologies while also mitigating negative impacts. When purpose is embedded across the business, rather than being confined to a sustainability team, it can drive long-term business value and is less at risk of being dropped in the face of an economic downturn.

2. Do

Purpose should not be limited to words or a glossy brochure but must be reflected in action and a clear understanding of how a company is going to deliver this comprehensively and consistently across all aspects of the business (recognising that all companies are on a journey). A great deal of thinking has gone into the implementation of purpose at the centre of business strategy and across all elements of the value chain. While this might include social impact programmes, it must go further. This typically involves the optimisation/redesign of company structure, processes and company assets to embed purpose at the core. This might include for example:

  • The types of people employed by the company;
  • The incentive structures that drive behaviour;
  • The procurement policies in place;
  • Adhering to responsible and ethical business standards and principles;
  • Reviewing their product and service mix (divesting from those that don’t align with their purpose and investing in those that do);
  • And the impact metrics that are key to demonstrating progress and ensuring purpose is fully implemented and operationalised (with defining and measuring social impact a particular challenge).

For the most advanced companies, it also involves proactively creating an internal system that spurs and sustains corporate social innovation – commercial innovation with a social impact, a topic we explored in a recent Challenge, resulted in a business guide that helps to codify and share tools, processes and techniques for supporting innovation.

3. Live

Culture is key. As David Grayson argues in his article, “the culture of the organisation: ‘the way we do things around here’”, needs to bring the purpose alive. A common feature of successful efforts to embed purpose is that emphasis is placed on implementing the identified purpose into all aspects of the company’s culture, its people and its ways of working. Often driven by a leader, this shapes management thinking and ensures purpose survives changes in leadership, and helps companies to make responsible short-term trade-offs in times when resources are scarce. Building a culture that supports the purpose means empowering employees (via tools, safe spaces and capacity training) so that they can hold their company to account. Ultimately, it’s about allowing the ethos of the purpose to live through the company’s people. A clear purpose statement has the potential to engage all employees across the business in a way that a separate sustainability strategy sometimes cannot. Finally, for many employees, particularly Millennials and Generation Z, purpose is an increasingly important factor in their decisions about whom to work for.

4. Say

There has been more recent recognition of the need to embed purpose consistently across the way companies engage externally – both through their brands with customers and through their advocacy with policymakers. From the perspective of brands, this includes implementing the identified purpose into consumer-facing communications and marketing activations. This consists of, but isn’t limited to, allowing the consumer to feel the brand purpose and be inspired by the purpose story: living through all brand touchpoints – from the brand’s products to its communication and its actions. But while purpose must engage brands as part of embedding purpose across business functions, it should not be led only by brands, as this can result in it being limited to a marketing exercise. On advocacy, we recently ran a Challenge on the potential of advocacy partnerships – where a company partners with peers and civil society actors – to drive forward progressive policy changes.

5. Partner

It is recognised that delivering purpose with impact requires forming new partnerships with other businesses, NGOs and government. Some companies see themselves as a catalyst in driving a wider, system-level change – towards sustainable living, for example, which requires action by multiple actors beyond the boundaries of the business. At the same time, there is a growing interest in the role that investors (particularly those who recognise the connection between purpose and long-term value), policymakers, NGOs (as campaigners and partners) and customers play in shaping the environment, and incentives that influence the way and extent to which purpose is truly embedded.

In our individual efforts to embed purpose, we are on a shared journey. We encourage you to share your insights and examples around these five pillars. Are there other issues that we have missed from our list? If you would like to get involved, please sign up to our Purpose Challenge here to find out about forthcoming engagement opportunities, including an Online Discussion “How Can We Save Purpose from Purpose-Wash?” which will take place, live on Thursday 11th July from Business Fights Poverty Oxford 2019. We look forward to hearing from you.

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