Social Purpose Trends

A Roadmap to Social Purpose

In January, BlackRock Founder, Chairman and CEO Larry Fink made headlines for his annual letter to CEOs, encouraging them to serve a social purpose. This letter not only supports a changing view of our economy, but also reads much like a roadmap to purposeful leadership.

First, embrace change.

“Society increasingly is turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges. Indeed, the public expectations of your company have never been greater. Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose.” – Larry Fink

The demands on businesses to embrace social purpose are steadily growing. A 2017 Salesforce study found 80 percent of customers and employees believe businesses have a responsibility to make a positive impact on society, and 76 percent of millennials consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work, according to a 2016 Cone Communications study.

Second, commit to purpose and profit.

“To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.” -Larry Fink

Said differently, “Leaders of tomorrow understand you have to have a strong mind and big heart.” This is my favorite quote because it is the future of leadership. It can also be an open door for companies to build brand loyalty, attract new customers and encourage greater levels of brand interaction.

Next, take a long-term view.

“In order to make engagement with shareholders as productive as possible, companies must be able to describe their strategy for long-term growth…The statement of long-term strategy is essential to understanding a company’s actions and policies, its preparation for potential challenges, and the context of its shorter-term decisions.” – Larry Fink

I believe the shift from the linear business model to a circular or interdependent model is just one example of the opportunities businesses are exploring as they consider not just long-term strategy but also long-term impact.

Know your story.

“Furthermore, the board is essential to helping a company articulate and pursue its purpose, as well as respond to the questions that are increasingly important to its investors, its consumers, and the communities in which it operates.” – Larry Fink

In his letter, Mr. Fink highlights the critical role of the board of directors not just in managing value, but also articulating and managing purpose.  I realized I looked upon the board of directors as decision-makers and risk managers. What I’m seeing now is that they must assume these responsibilities with the clearest understanding of the organization’s brand purpose.

Demand diversity.

“Boards with a diverse mix of genders, ethnicities, career experiences, and ways of thinking have, as a result, a more diverse and aware mindset. They are less likely to succumb to groupthink or miss new threats to a company’s business model.” – Larry Fink

A 2015 McKinsey & Company study on board diversity found companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. This makes sense. If a board is responsible for articulating and driving purpose, it should also be reflective of those who engage with its purpose, including investors, customers and employees.

Finally, get started.

“Companies must ask themselves: What role do we play in the community? How are we managing our impact on the environment? Are we working to create a diverse workforce? Are we adapting to technological change?” – Larry Fink

In the closing of his letter, Mr. Fink offers some helpful questions for businesses integrating social purpose. It seems the only questions left is what are you waiting for?