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This article was published on March 30, 2021

3 ways to make social impact run through your business, not around it

Lessons from Uber's impact journey.

3 ways to make social impact run through your business, not around it

Sherry will be hosting a session on this topic at Boost on April 15th — along with Uber’s Eugenie Teasley. Secure your ticket now.

Until recently, my entire career had been spent in the tech industry. From the inside, leadership led a rallying cry that told employees they weren’t just there building software — they were making the world better.

These ideas would often be delivered through a corporate purpose, a corporate responsibility statement, or sometimes they would be simplified down to a vow to put customers ahead of (or at least next to) shareholders. 

As an employee, these grand ambitions used to differentiate the fulfilling workplaces from the rest. But now, I’m hard-pressed to find a company that hasn’t made some kind of bold statement around solving real-world social and environmental problems, in addition to turning a profit. 

As a result, corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become commoditized, and one company’s ‘moonshot’ can be indistinguishable from the next. How do businesses overcome this? I believe that the only way to truly balance purpose with profit is to marry the two.

In other words, we must think about how to make impact run through businesses, not around them.

Building real impact

The reality is that doing this, particularly in a large corporation, means overcoming many mental obstacles. For one, most businesses weren’t founded with a social mission in mind, the likes of Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s aside. 

But building real impact into any organization requires a re-envisioning of your core business: looking with a fresh perspective at who you serve, what you offer them, and the potential positive or negative externalities it’s creating in the world. And the more established a business is, the harder this is to do. 

Additionally, conventional wisdom has made us believe the myth that impact and profit are at odds and thus must be kept separate (enter a world of .orgs and corporate foundations). What follows is that one part of the business makes money, and the other spends it. Usually in the form of donations that make consumers feel they are giving back. 

As a consultant, my job is to help make this change for companies like Uber, whose global social impact we codified last year, just as their business was being confronted with the realities of the pandemic

So how do you create a system that enables impact to run through your business? As a brand, a consultant engaging with a client, or anything in between? Here are three ways we approached this with Uber, and ways you can approach it in your own work:

1. Sit at the intersection of many points of view

Though we increasingly do impact-related work, we are not a pure social impact consultancy. We sit at an intersection of business, marketing, brand, social impact and, of course, broader culture. 

When thinking about the eventual impact a business can have, we start at the core of that business. What are the unique competencies that have made this business commercially successful? What are the vulnerabilities on the horizon? What are the real challenges leadership is pouring over? 

This leads to an approach that is equal parts commercial and cultural — find the moves that help both to advance. For Uber, this meant going beyond only monetary donations to look at what the core business could do to help. What could Uber’s incredible operational and logistics engine, and global scale offer people?

2. Start where you are with practical solutions

One of the most exciting parts of working with a big business is thinking about the massive resources and scale with which that business can affect the world. We know that consumers increasingly expect businesses to solve the world’s problems, so it would be easy to dive in and recommend the biggest and best ideas. 

But every business is unique in how they view social impact, and where they (and their leadership) are on the journey. So we level-set. 

What are the right moves for a business today? Where could this eventually go? For a company like Uber, this meant resetting the benchmarks they compare themselves against and setting their own standard for successful impact.

3. Seize the momentum by making it central to every action of the business

As we have all learned, businesses can’t predict where the world will go next. But they need to find the right time, place, and action that builds the momentum and excitement to do more. Because the barriers are largely organizational and mental, internal momentum is critical to making impact run through the business. 

For Uber, a pivot came in spring 2020, when they encouraged people to stay home and donated $10 million meals and rides to people in need. This put the social impact team in the driver’s seat of the business’ response in the world and has kept it there since. 

The standards for a company’s impact will continue changing, and the stakes will become higher as consumers expect more. The only way to ensure your business (or clients) don’t fall victim to the commoditization of social impact, to truly future-proof your impact strategy, is to make it central to the business strategy. 

The above approaches can serve as starting points to making this continuous cycle of evaluation and decision-making active and, dare I say, impactful.

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