Building a foundation for business success with social purpose

Photo of Chelsea Leong

Chelsea Leong, fourth-year BCom student at UBC Sauder, was the panel moderator for the Social Purpose for Business student roundtable.

Posted 2020-06-22
The business landscape here at home and around the globe is changing rapidly. Conventional ways of doing business have been disrupted by unprecedented global events that have reshaped public attitudes toward employers, governments and institutions. Within this context, the issue of social purpose is becoming more and more relevant to business strategy.

The UBC Sauder Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics recently hosted a special online event to explore the topic of social purpose. Guest speaker Mary Ellen Schaafsma, Director of the Social Purpose Institute at the United Way of the Lower Mainland, engaged with students and addressed questions about how business leaders can drive positive change by distributing more benefits to society while still focusing on growth and profitability.

The roundtable  discussion included UBC Sauder Bachelor of Commerce students Chelsea Leong, Luk Pham, Joseph Lyons and Emielia Dahl-Sam. The participants discussed how the intersection of communities and corporations holds great potential as both respond to challenges posed by COVID-19. 

"We're seeing fashion retailers create face masks, breweries making hand sanitizer, and companies using ad dollars to advertise on behalf of local businesses,” observes Leong, who moderated the panel discussion.

“Social purpose is clearly an even more prevalent factor in business today.” 

Leading a paradigm shift 

Through programs and workshops, the United Way of the Lower Mainland is working with businesses to make social purpose a higher priority. Mary Ellen Schaafsma says in as little as five years, leaders have undergone a paradigm shift in their awareness of social responsibility.

"In 2016, social purpose was barely a whisper. There were maybe one or two business articles a year about it,” recalls Schaafsma. “Now, there are one or two articles every week that talk about social purpose and its importance to the future of business.”

Photo of Mary Ellen

Mary Ellen Schaafsma, Director of the Social Purpose Institute at the United Way of the Lower Mainland, says social purpose should be the engine that drives the business.

According to Schaafsma, businesses can be most effective when they place social purpose at the core of their vision and strategy and define their raison d'etre in societal terms.

"Companies should have 'social purpose' as a lens on all that they do,” she explains. “Social purpose doesn't change the business per se — but it changes its focus and the reason it's in business. And that reason is to bring all of its competencies and assets to bear on the societal or environmental issue on which it can have the most impact."

Engaging employees as purpose ambassadors 

Schaafsma says employees play a vital role in bringing their organization’s social purpose to life. The first step is for companies to set out a clear vision — a social purpose that both the organization and its employees want to achieve. Once that purpose is laid out, managers need to get buy-in from employees. The next step is to invite them to become "purpose ambassadors. 

"That social purpose is the foundation for the organization's values, beliefs and strategies and how people perform and interact,” she explains. “Once a company has articulated that clearly, it's likely to reflect in employee values too.” 

According to Schaafsma, an enterprise built on social values helps attract the right talent and builds a formidable team culture. This is particularly important when companies set out to recruit the next generation of leaders, many of whom want to see their skills and creative labour go beyond contributing to their employer's bottom line, or even their own wallets.

"The next generation wants purpose and meaning in their work. Beyond just a pay check, they want to know that what they're doing every day is contributing to a better world," says Schaafsma.

Inspiring future leaders

Pursuing a business education that includes learning about social purpose business models puts students on the frontlines of affecting societal change; an opportunity that resonates with Chelsea Leong.

"As current and future business leaders, it's important to learn about the need for social purpose and to see it as a crucial component of driving a company's success beyond their bottom line," Leong says.

With her academic background in marketing and human resources, combined with her personal interest in sustainable companies, Leong is looking forward to launching a career that involves helping businesses achieve greater social impact and community contribution.

To access a recording of this virtual event, click here.