The ‘Purpose Paradigm’: Solution or Scam?

By Zahid Torres-Rahman, Founder and CEO, Business Fights Poverty

There is a clear and deepening frustration amongst some with the rhetoric of “purpose”. For those of us who believe in the power of business to do good, this is an opportunity for some honest self-reflection. But ultimately purpose is still worth believing in for three good reasons.

In his recent interview at the BSR Conference 2018, Anand Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All,” questioned the ability of sustainability professionals to change the world. “The kind of do-gooding, philanthropy, CSR, impact investing, social enterprise…that are essentially within a market frame”, he argued, “are intrinsically limited because..they are about changing the world in ways that keep the winners’ world the same.”  

In a similar vein, Maria Hengeveld who attended Business Fights Poverty Oxford 2018, criticized the conference’s focus on corporate purpose in an article for The Nation (“Big Business Has a New Scam: The ‘Purpose Paradigm’”). “Contrary to its purported aim, the point of purpose isn’t to drive change”, she says. “It’s to make sure any change stays within the tightly bound comfort zone of the world’s most powerful executives.”

Purpose, it would seem, is under attack; seen as a veneer over the darker, negative impact of businesses on the social and environmental issues they claim to care about. There is a clear and deepening frustration amongst some with the rhetoric of “purpose”, “sustainability” and the notion of “business as a force for good”.

For those of us who believe in the power of business to do good, this is an opportunity for some honest self-reflection (we hosted a lively panel that debated “purpose-wash” at our last Oxford event, and more such sessions are needed), but ultimately purpose is still worth believing in for three good reasons.

1. Purpose is being used by companies to fundamentally rethink business models

The fact that businesses are talking about purpose is a good thing, as it shifts their focus away from philanthropic CSR and towards thinking more deeply about the impacts they can have through their core business. The primary focus of many sustainability professionals I speak to is moving purpose beyond the confines of the sustainability department to the commercial and innovation functions of the business. A number of recent books are designed to help. David Grayson, Chris Coulter, and Mark Lee in their book, All In – The Future of Business Leadership”, set out a roadmap for business leaders which starts by setting a clear, authentic and inspiring purpose. Meanwhile, in his book, “Core”, Neil Gaught outlines his management tool, the Single Organizing Idea, as a way to operationalize purpose, and fill the gap between having a purpose and doing something about it. Taking a wider view, Colin Mayer in “Prosperity: Better Business Makes the Greater Good” presents an agenda for companies and regulators to unlock the corporation’s “unique and powerful position to promote economic and social wellbeing in its fullest sense, for customers, for future generations, as well as for shareholders”.

One result is the growing number of examples of “inclusive” business models opening opportunities to more people in society, highlighted by the likes of The Inclusive Business Action Network and the United Nations Business Call to Action. A number of businesses are reshaping their entire business around their purpose. Recently, Danone announced its intention to certify its entire business as a “B Corporation”, a movement of over 2,600 companies that represent “a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit”.  All this sits against the backdrop of a creative revolution underway inspired by Peter Drucker’s idea that “every single social and global issue of our day is a business opportunity in disguise”.

2. The purpose paradigm is being driven at least as much by employees themselves

Employees are embracing purpose to influence the direction of their companies and to call out inconsistencies between rhetoric and reality. There is a growing movement of purpose-driven employees who are looking for ways to use their companies’ products, services, value chains, and voice to have a positive social impact.

Recognising that every single employee has the potential to be a change agent, The League of Intrapreneurs is a global learning community of people driving change from within, providing peer-support and sharing the stories of people doing the hard work of shifting models. Gib Bulloch, in the “The Intrapreneur”, sets out his vision of a truly purpose-led business that focuses on creating innovative solutions to social and environmental challenges, with advice for those employees battling the “corporate immune system” to make this a reality. At our Skoll World Forum 2018 Ecosystem Event with The League, we explored the significance of social intrapreneurship and the welcome and growing interest among a number of businesses to develop systems and cultures that spur and sustain corporate social innovation right across the company.

3. Purpose inspires a shared journey of learning and improvement

We all know of examples where more needs to be done, but the direction of travel is a positive one. I personally know many committed people across business, civil society, academia, and government who are working intensively to embed purpose within business, and to scale the positive impact they have. The journey can be complex and difficult, and a priority for me is understanding how these individuals, no matter where they are on their journey, can be supported, encouraged and connected in a way that helps them move forward.

This is an unfinished journey, with new challenges and priorities emerging all the time. One such area is around forging new partnerships – for joint policy advocacy between business and civil society to drive more progressive policies on climate change and social issues; between business and governments to crowd-in the finance needed on critical social issues; and cross-sector collaboration to drive deeper, system-level change of the sort described at Business Fight Poverty Oxford 2017 by Kate Raworth and Jane Nelson.

The common ground between those within the business and purpose world, and those who criticize it, is the desire for authenticity. A recognition that we need to move beyond the rhetoric of purpose and embed it meaningfully into the everyday reality of business. Authenticity means striving for consistency: promoting positive impacts, while also ensuring a robust do-no-harm agenda (as set out in responsible business standards and principles, such as the UN Global Compact’s Ten Principles on human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption); and ensuring lobbying positions are not working counter to stated societal priorities elsewhere in the business.  

Authenticity also means being bold and comprehensive: while recognising the power of purpose to reach customers through brands and potential employees through recruitment, it also means seeing the value of setting purpose at the heart of the business’ strategy, systems and structures, and raising the bar on the outcomes we seek both for business and society.  And importantly, it means getting better at measuring our impact and learning from what works and what does not (with a lot of valuable work being done in this space including, for example, the Positive Impact Initiative and the SDG Compass).

We need an honest discussion about how to embed purpose authentically within business, because done authentically, purpose can drive the deep change we are all looking for.


Join the Conversation

We’ll be curating a series of articles, discussions and activities over the coming weeks and months that dig deeper into these issues. Our next Skoll World Forum Ecosystem Event on 9 April, in partnership with Acumen, will be focusing on cross-sector collaboration for sustainable supply chains, with the need for business model innovation a core theme. At this forum, we will be inviting corporate leaders as well as their potential partners – NGOs and social enterprises – to look for bolder ways to make the food and agriculture industries sustainable and more beneficial for small-holder farmers.  And then on 11 July, we will once again be hosting our annual flagship event, Business Fights Poverty Oxford 2019 at Said Business School, University of Oxford. This will bring together 300 professionals and practitioners who are working to embed purpose authentically within their business, with a focus on topics such as partnerships, women’s economic empowerment, corporate social innovation, responsible supply chains and human rights. Contact us is if you would like to get involved, as a speaker or attendee.

Share this story

Leave a Reply



Next Event

Business Fights Poverty Global Goals Summit 2024