I got the chance to hear Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, speak a few years ago at Lamar University. He was talking about business and its role in society today versus centuries ago and I found his points compelling.
Greenfield shared that if you look back throughout history, you can tell what institutions have the largest influence on society by the buildings that were built to represent them. Five hundred to a thousand years ago, religion was the predominant, defining influence on a society. Churches were grand structures and many have stood the test of time over those centuries. Gradually though over the next few hundred years, governments began to more formally take hold and those buildings began to represent power and influence. Fast-forward to today, and it is pretty clear that there is no more powerful influence over our society than business, and the buildings reflect that. The grandest structures in the world – whether being built in Abu Dhabi or Manhattan – are for private sector businesses. With that influence, however, comes greater responsibility.
Business’ role in society is greater than it has ever been in history. And it doesn’t appear to be waning – in fact, quite the opposite is the case. Communities and countries will increasingly rely on the private sector to provide solutions to societies’ greatest problems.
To that end, most if not all businesses get requests for donations of time and money to philanthropic causes. Many are great causes. Some are great causes that the owner is also very passionate about. But how many of them also match the mission of the company, and reinforce the firm’s real reason for being to all of its stakeholders?
Match Mission and Message
Using Jerry Greenfield as an example, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream was founded on the concept of bringing the best tasting, richest ice cream to market using only the freshest organic ingredients supplied by local Vermont farms. It is no surprise then that the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation gives away over $1.8 million per year in profits to national and local causes, many of which carry a theme of ‘environmental protection’ and ‘sustainable food systems’ – emphasizing and reinforcing the value proposition of Ben and Jerry’s. The grant decisions are made by employee-led, non-management advisory groups, which confirm the mission at every level. In many cases, customers buy the ice cream for the cause, as well as the taste and quality.
Another very current example of a young company whose mission and value proposition is perfectly aligned is TOMS Shoes. Founder Blake Mycoskie saw an enormous social need while travelling in Argentina and decided a company built around the theme of “One for One” could address the issue. For every pair of shoes purchased at TOMS, they will donate a pair to a child in need around the world. TOMS is now expanding their mission selling sunglasses and donating reading glasses to children with eye problems around the world. This is a simple premise that has had enormous consequences. By late 2006 a few months after starting the company, TOMS made a delivery of 10,000 shoes to Argentina. By September 2010, they had given away over 1,000,000 shoes to children in need.
During my time with a large regional appliance & electronics retailer earlier in my career, I always felt our company was missing an opportunity to rally our 2,500+ employees around a mission bigger than ourselves and, in turn tell a story about the company and its value proposition. Appliances and electronics are used in every home in the country. In addition, the dream of home ownership is a shared dream by the vast majority of Americans. The nature of the changing retail industry with long hours and increased competition resulted in a great deal of employee turnover. Research shows, however, that job satisfaction can be greatly improved and turnover greatly reduced if a company can succeed in showing employees that they are working on a mission much larger than just a paycheck. By beginning a strategic partnership with Habitat for Humanity, we could have filled each completed house with products from our stores. In addition, we could have given our employees an extra 10 hours per month of paid leave to work on a Habitat House, building camaraderie, buy-in and a real sense of accomplishment above and beyond simply punching a clock.
So, the question is, what is the next step for businesses across our country? With business’ increasing influence in society, my hope is that the private sector will respond in a mission-oriented, pro-active manner. Philanthropy is almost always a positive undertaking. But we at Neos are always talking about integration. What if businesses across the nation started to take the focused approach that TOMS and Ben & Jerry’s take?
I am confident that there are causes to which your company donates money and time. They may be great, meaningful causes. But I would ask yourself these 3 questions as you consider corporate philanthropy moving forward:
- Does your company donate time and money to a cause?
- Does that philanthropy reinforce the over-arching value proposition of your company?
- Is there ‘buy-in’ from every employee at your company?
If you can answer YES to all three questions, then your firm is well on its way to matching its mission with its message.