11 Criteria for Defining, Refining Your Company’s Social Purpose Statement

When a statement is too generic, it can be challenging for employees to connect to it and for the entire organization to be galvanized by that social purpose.

Are corporations sociopathic or socially purposeful? Just over 15 years ago, the film [The Corporation](https://*en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Corporation_(2003_film) decried the pathological nature of corporate life. Its argument channeled worldwide concerns that business was a scourge on the planet.

Now it’s 2019, and the producers might have reason to be more optimistic if they saw what’s going on with a growing number of companies that believe that their enduring reason for being should be creating a better world. It’s called “social purpose,” and over a dozen Canadian companies are on an adventure with the United Way’s Social Purpose Institute to define or refine the humanitarian reason their organization exists.

These adventurous companies are on the path to articulating their social purpose and scaling it through their business models. Their work is based on research into the definition of social purpose and the business case for social purpose I conducted for the United Way over the past two years. They are charting a path to redefine the purpose of business in society, starting in Greater Vancouver and expanding from there. The new United Way Social Purpose Institute is helping them along, every step of the way.

As Richard Kouwenhoven, CEO of Hemlock Printers — one of the innovator companies, stated: “The process so far has really helped us refocus our organization — the outcome of our efforts will be a simple and concise mission, vision and purpose, which will really help guide our decision-making in the years ahead.”

Recently, the United Way and four of these innovating companies joined forces to hear from two dozen “critical friends”— local community and business leaders acting as advisors — on how to enhance and scale their social purpose efforts. The advisors asked:

  • What is new with your social purpose?

  • What does the future world look like? What changes do you want?

  • If you were to be successful, what would the outcome be?

  • How do your core products accelerate the change you seek to create?

  • What was the inspiration for the founders in starting the company?

These critical friends cautioned that: “When a statement is too generic, it can be challenging for employees to connect to it and for the entire organization to be galvanized by that social purpose.”

Below is a list of criteria that critical friends should look for in a social purpose statement that creates value for the company and its stakeholders. Companies developing or enhancing their social purpose can learn from this advice:

Business Relevance
  • Does Your Social Purpose Demonstrate These Qualities? Provides a direct connection to the business; it fits with the business model, value proposition and products
  • Does Your Social Purpose Align to These Principles? Your purpose is connected to your business model, addresses your products and services and showcases your products
Legacy Story
  • Does Your Social Purpose Demonstrate These Qualities? There is a direct link to why the business was founded; it demonstrates the story of legacy
  • Does Your Social Purpose Align to These Principles? Find and tie to your company’s legacy story and historical roots
Bold Commitment
  • Does Your Social Purpose Demonstrate These Qualities? The statement is bold and aspirational
  • Does Your Social Purpose Align to These Principles? Say what you are targeting and committing to; specify the change you are seeking, and the legacy you are creating
Clear Definition
  • Does Your Social Purpose Demonstrate These Qualities? The objectives are clear; there is a clear purpose, it is easy to “get it”; why you exist is clear to any third party
  • Does Your Social Purpose Align to These Principles? Clarify what the words mean, thoroughly define them; don’t be vague, have a focus
Be Simple
  • Does Your Social Purpose Demonstrate These Qualities? Demonstrate simplicity; the statement should be to the point and no confusion – each word should have meaning
  • Does Your Social Purpose Align to These Principles? Don’t have too many words or concepts, but don’t be overly simple: If the statement is too brief it could be seen as a marketing slogan
Avoid Generic
  • Does Your Social Purpose Demonstrate These Qualities? Make sure each word stands for something and is compelling
  • Does Your Social Purpose Align to These Principles? Don’t be too generic or broad; make sure your social purpose couldn’t belong to any company or industry
Forward-Looking
  • Does Your Social Purpose Demonstrate These Qualities? Ensure your social purpose is a flexible platform – it should be broad enough to work now and expand/change/adapt in coming years
  • Does Your Social Purpose Align to These Principles? Your social purpose should be used to drive your business forward; the statement needs to create a lens/filter for decision-making
Humanistic Change
  • Does Your Social Purpose Demonstrate These Qualities? Focus on accelerating positive change and desire to inspire action; use humanizing words
  • Does Your Social Purpose Align to These Principles? Address your negative impacts in the statement (e.g. environmental footprint)
Creative Uniqueness
  • Does Your Social Purpose Demonstrate These Qualities? Out-of-the-box thinking
  • Does Your Social Purpose Align to These Principles? Purpose should reflect what will be unique to your organization, what you will be known for
Address Industry
  • Does Your Social Purpose Demonstrate These Qualities? Your purpose should acknowledge big problems in your industry and demonstrate how you are prepared to tackle them; it should recognize that the status quo is not sustainable/ acceptable
  • Does Your Social Purpose Align to These Principles? Tackle the big issues in your industry; demonstrate your interest in changing the industry
Authentic Language
  • Does Your Social Purpose Demonstrate These Qualities? Have an authentic purpose
  • Does Your Social Purpose Align to These Principles? Ensure the purpose reflects who you are, and not a slogan, or the focus of your CSR or corporate citizenship; avoid buzzwords and motherhood statements

This is a watershed moment for these companies and their stakeholders that can drive both business growth and the potential for social good. What better way for your company to start a new year than with a project to define your organization’s social purpose and what it stands for?

For more, check out the United Way's Social Purpose Institute and its resources.

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