The People Want Business with a Purpose (Will Social Intrapreneurs Deliver?)

League of Intrapreneurs
Source: League of Intrapreneurs

More U.S. consumers now believe that individuals, not the government, are responsible for tackling society's problems, according to the global 2012 Edelman goodpurpose® Study. It's the the first time in the study's five-year history that a country's respondents have looked to everyday innovators over Big Brother for leadership.

But while consumer attitudes around social purpose in the U.S. seem to suggest that we're headed toward an “everyone a changemaker world,” businesses and corporations still have a significant role to play. Business leaders had better take notice.

More than half of Edelman's 8,000 respondents from 16 markets think that CEOs must innovate to create socially responsible products as well as make long-term commitments to addressing social problems. Interestingly, 52 percent also believe that CEOs need to motivate their employees to take part in solving societal issues—businesses that do not only drive future purchase intent, but also reinforce consumer trust in their brand. (An independent study from researchers at UCLA found that companies that try to better the planet have more productive employees. Another reason to go green?)

Here's the rub: While 87 percent of global respondents (and more than 75 percent of U.S. respondents) in the Edelman study believe that companies should place equal weight on business and pressing social issues, only about a third think that business, in its current form, is getting the job done.

But companies don't have to abandon their time-tested business strategies in pursuit of a social mission, however. More than three-quarters of global respondents, up 19 percent from 2008, said they were cool with big profits, provided that a brand supports a good cause.

“It's not the if, it's the how. Purpose needs to become a core competency for leading brands and corporations."

The good news for companies is that consumers are putting their money where their mouths are. Nearly half of respondents buy products and services monthly from socially conscious brands, a 47 percent increase from 2010. And consumer support for cause-related brands hasn't stopped there: more people than ever before are buying, recommending, promoting, investing in (and even paying a premium for) socially-focused businesses and services.

“It’s not the if, it’s the how,” said Jackie Cooper, global vice chair of Edelman Brand Properties. “Purpose needs to become a core competency for leading brands and corporations. Companies need to build social equity into their brands, from product innovation, to employee engagement to marketing communications.”

One of the best ways for CEOs to align business strategies with social purpose isn't to look for inspiration from outside their walls, but rather to look inward. There is a “lost tribe” in corporate America that is innovating from within some of the world's largest companies, as Ashoka's own Alexa Clay revealed on Fast Company's social innovation blog, Co.Exist.

This lost tribe is made up of social intrapreneurs. In other words: people who are trying to make business better from the inside out. And they're more than proponents of corporate social responsibility; social intrapreneurs are instigators who can bridge the gap between consumer demand for better business and a company's ability to deliver.

As Alexa put together her corporate ethnography, she crossed paths with Sam, a former warehouse worker at Nike who went on to build a citizen sector organization to support Native American communities, and Nick, who secured funding at the telephony giant Vodafone to set up the now-famous mobile money transfer service M-Pesa.

What surprised her most about Sam and Nick was their deep commitment to social change, despite the fact that both spent about a third of each day in a corporate work environment that didn't necessarily consider sustainability—much less saving the world—to be a priority.

“Rather than checking themselves at the door, they arrived at work fully embodied and committed to infecting their companies with purposefulness. People like Sam and Nick are social intrapreneurs, agents within companies that are committed to aligning business with society.

As companies struggle to think through how to incorporate a triple bottom line agenda into business, or manage one at arm’s length through corporate responsibility or communications departments, social intrapreneurs provide a cure—driving social innovation from core business.

As I came to meet more and more people like Sam and Nick, folks that were pioneering access to energy programs inside Exxon, developing microfinance programs within Morgan Stanley, or developing sustainability-based customer-engagement strategies at places like Unilever, I came to appreciate that companies could be a force for good in the world. And moreover, that while small, this tribe of social intrapreneurs that I discovered was one I desperately wanted to ensure would never go extinct.”

The League of Intrapreneurs: Building Better Business from the Inside Out.”