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Organizational Change
The Purpose Gloves Are Off:
How to Not End Up on the Ropes

The United Way Social Purpose Institute offers a free tool to help companies assess and rate the degree to which their purpose is fully embedded across the company and in its relationships. These are the new techniques that purpose players are expected to demonstrate to stay in the ring …

Purpose in Canada just entered the ring.

Corporate Knights, the famed Canadian publisher that annually ranks the world’s 100 most sustainable corporations, recently released its rating of 34 Canadian companies with a social purpose (a report I co-authored). It found that only half of those with a social purpose invest in authentic implementation; half likely do not and are at risk of purpose-washing. From this, we concluded:

  • There is a lack of standards/guidance for companies on purpose execution, so companies are flying blind.

  • If organizations don’t effectively implement their purpose, not only will they not accrue the benefits, but they risk alienating their stakeholders.

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    Those that have authentic implementation of purpose will unlock their resources, influence, reach and scale to realize its potential and impact, and will help put society on a sustainable course.

For Canada or any country to accelerate the Purpose Economy, purpose governance and implementation guidelines are needed. This was recently reinforced by consultations conducted by the United Way Social Purpose Institute (UWSPI) and published in the report, Propelling the Canadian Purpose Economy: A Framework for Action. Most members of the social purpose community believe that Canada needs an accreditation or rating system to foster and drive authentic social purpose implementation and impact.

There are global developments in this arena, including the British Standards Institute — which is developing a UK standard for purpose-driven organizations, referred to as PAS 808. However, Canada can’t wait for this to become a set of global guidelines. B Lab’s B Corp Assessment Tool is a great resource for companies to be a force for good; but it does not provide advice on how to implement a social purpose, per se.

Fortunately, the UWSPI can be a coach to help improve technique. Not only does it provide a program to help companies implement their social purpose through a peer-based model (Social Purpose Implementers), it provides a free Social Purpose Assessment Tool to help companies assess and rate the degree to which their purpose is fully embedded across the company and in its relationships. It is a guideline and set of best practices that enable company benchmarking, offering guidance on how to become an authentic social purpose company.

It includes 25 practices across the following:

  • Purpose, values and strategy

  • Governance and leadership

  • People and culture

  • Operations

  • Customer experience and marketing

  • Business ecosystem

  • Monitoring and reporting

With input from consultations the UWSPI held over the past two years with GLOBE Series and other partners, and the findings of the new Corporate Knights report, I updated the Social Purpose Assessment Tool to reflect stakeholder expectations for more robust purpose performance.

These are the new techniques that purpose players are expected to demonstrate to stay in the ring:

Formal responsibility of board and management

  • Boards have explicit oversight responsibility as formalized in their terms of reference (see Purpose Governance Framework for more information on the board’s role in Purpose Governance).

  • CEOs have explicit purpose-execution responsibility as formalized in their role descriptions.

  • Executives have at least one purpose-related objective in their performance plans and in their short- and long-term incentive plans.

Integration in culture and strategy

  • At least one corporate value is explicitly tied to the purpose.

  • The strategy explicitly includes purpose goals, targets and metrics.

  • A process is in place to escalate issues when social purpose is not being integrated.

  • ESG (environmental, social, governance) / CSR (corporate social responsibility) approaches are differentiated from, and not conflated with, purpose execution.

Public disclosure of purpose governance system and progress

  • Disclosures include progress on purpose goals and targets and the approach to governing and executing on the purpose.

  • The purpose is visible on the organization’s website and includes a definition of what it means and how it creates value for the business and stakeholders.

Customer and business ecosystem engagement on purpose

  • Customers are engaged on the purpose.

  • The social purpose business concept is promoted to other businesses to foster their success, create future collaborators, and grow the social purpose business movement.

By following the 25 practices in the refreshed Social Purpose Assessment Tool, companies will be able to stay in the ring and up their purpose game.