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Organizational Change
From CSR to Social Purpose in the New ‘Roaring Twenties’

In the 1920s, people didn’t pay attention to the problems brought on by market excess — and that decade begat the Great Depression. Today, truly modern companies are showing the way to a different kind of decade.

One hundred years ago, the decade of the “roaring twenties” opened, ushering in a spirit of novelty, associated with modernity and a break with tradition. New technologies — including automobiles, motion pictures and radio — brought modernity to a large part of the population and made everything seem possible. But in the 1920s, people were so caught up in the new way of life, they didn’t pay attention to the problems brought on by market excess — and that decade begat the Great Depression. Today, truly modern companies are showing the way to a different kind of decade.

As 2020 opens, pundits battle for pre-eminence in their critiques of the “corporate agenda.” I will leave the raging debate to them and offer my musings — below the maelstrom — on how the 2020s might shape that agenda.

I tend to avoid the cynical and look for hope in the margins.

Late in the decade that has just closed, I was given the opportunity to learn about the social impact journeys of six Canadian companies, through a collaborative project with our federal government. From this project I produced “Best Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Practices in Canada: Six Case Studies.”

These companies were identified through a broader scan conducted of over 30 sustainability leaders in Canada. While all the companies were innovating and defining a new sustainability agenda for their firms, sectors and community partners, these six stood out for their embrace of a new trend in business: The Social Purpose Company. I predict this type of company will become a common marketplace feature over the coming decade.

Social purpose companies help create a better world by being an engine for good and generating social benefits by the very act of conducting business.

Companies governed by a commitment to social purpose are not confined to any particular sector or region. They hail from across Canada, and include publicly traded, co-operative and privately held firms. They are in finance, construction, food production, retail, and office supplies. Many are B Corporations, which have strong social and environmental commitments and performance. Many are defining their social purpose through a unique program offered through the United Way movement — a program I helped create, called the Social Purpose Institute.

It was a pleasure to explore the dimensions of this emerging business form – and to become inspired by the impact of their social experiments.

Here are some of my conclusions:

  • Social purpose companies partner with organizations to help them achieve their purpose — they can’t do it on their own

  • Social purpose companies often launch their own nonprofits to partner with, when the appropriate nonprofits don’t exist in their constellation

  • Social purpose companies transform their industry through education events, dialogues and standards — they seek to be a catalyst for social change in their sector

Check out the case studies to learn more and be inspired by this emerging breed of companies, offering an antidote to the excesses of capitalism. And if you want to really dig in and help your company join the social purpose business movement, here is a guidebook that I created as a natural extension of the CSR research commissioned by the federal government in 2018, leveraged in 2019 and to be amplified in these new roaring twenties!

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