The buzzwords in marketing today are all about giving back. Brands compete to sound more sustainable than each other, they offer a percentage of proceeds to worthy causes and they share their CSI initiatives in deluges of social media posts.
It seems like a bizarre assertion to make. Corporate Social Investment is all about supporting communities in areas that make a positive impact - such as education or healthcare. It is quite obviously the right thing to do.
The problem with CSI, however, is that when it is not connected to the business of doing business, or not aligned to business strategy in some way, it becomes its own disconnected 'giving department', or one of marketing's responsibilities. It is seen as a separate initiative from the core business; a cost centre and a nice-to-have.
CSI also lets the C-suite off the hook without making any fundamental changes. It appeases any guilt that business leaders may feel at single-mindedly pursuing profits. It appeases any guilt that customers feel about buying products or services from a company that may have a negative overall impact on society and the environment.
We believe that creating truly sustainable organisations is about purpose. When businesses really understand their purpose - the why that drives their actions and decisions - it becomes impossible to look at social responsibility and business as unrelated activities. Take FNB, for example. Their brand idea of 'how can we help you?' aligns perfectly with their business intent of 'helping to create a better world', and this has pushed them to not simply make their customers' lives easier, but to inspire South Africans to help one another.
Purpose is a powerful business driver. It energises employees to perform better and it forms an emotional connection with customers that helps drive sales. It provides tangible business value, much more so than the 'feel-good factor' of CSI, and that makes businesses more likely to commit to it.
Knowing our purpose means figuring out why the world is better off with your business in it. And that will force you to look at your business processes as a whole, and to start changing the way you do business.
Thinking purposefully is ultimately a more sustainable way to create social change than CSI is, because it does not pit social investment against profits. A business that is truly behind a clear organisational purpose cannot separate out social investment from its day-to-day operations. Profit and purpose become mutually reinforcing, and the survival of the business depends on making a positive impact on the communities it touches. That is certain to capture the attention of the C-suite!
*This article originally appeared in The SA Leader