The business of doing good: outcomes and values

Elizabeth Eagen
6 min readOct 28, 2017

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The business of doing good, and social enterprise in particular, is based on the contention that there’s a better way to do things: that our businesses, wherever possible, should at least do no harm, and if they can, should serve and promote a more just, sustainable and equitable world. Some analysts look at the entire business environment, without segmenting out social enterprise, as one giant continuum: every business has positive and negative effects, and most are at the very least looking to avoid harm. That continuum could range in business actions from simple risk mitigation and creation of values to the shareholders, all the way toward setting up and setting out to contribute to a solution. If this holds true, then a social enterprise is at one end of a spectrum of business values that is potentially shifting — positively — toward more frequently and easily calculating for “good” as well as profit.

Many of the people I talked to in the course of this research brought up Unilever as an example of a large corporation with a doing good ethos. The CEO, Paul Polman, has led the company since 2009 under the vision “to fully decouple its growth from overall environmental footprint and increase its positive social impact through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.” He’s commented often about how this vision leads to employee attraction and retention, as well as the full support he has from the board, which protects the longevity of this strategy.

That’s an excellent place to be in: if the board supports and protects the values as core to the business, then the longer Unilever lasts, the greater demonstration we have of a global corporation’s potential to do good. And because Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan has a robust measurement, outcome, and tracking system for metrics, with a great deal of transparency to it, it’s a good place to start thinking about models for metrics, outcomes, and impact.

The multi-dimensional quest for the right metrics is a compelling question for any outcome assessment. Unilever (and many others) have linked their metrics to International efforts like the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These offer big picture aims and guidance — and as one analyst noted, some global-scale leadership on what is “good.”

To measure good, you need data at the right scale, and also at the right level of participation and control. The SDGs encourage impact measurement and statistics. And social entrepreneurs and impact investors know data can enhance impact. But the responsible data movement also knows that the ethical implications of data are of equal importance to this conversation. This is especially true in how contributors collect and reuse the data that’s necessary to measure — and in whose hands lies the power of interpreting those bits of information. So a good outcome in metrics might be to find the right data, via inclusive processes to get it, and store it safely. You can measure these results with case studies, as The Engine Room has done here, and see a detailed analysis of very current harms here when data-minimization strategies are not followed.

As far as meaningful outcomes, there are some models for that, too. One I’ve mentioned before is the Impact Management Project. That project seeks to build publicly-shared consensus among multiple disciplines on how to talk about and manage impact, and to help that consensus affect levers of decision making. You don’t have to be a social entrepreneur to be a part of the Impact Management Project.

And as for values — the investors and the companies I spoke to had spent a great deal of time figuring out what exactly their mission was, and what they wanted to achieve. Impact investment advisors spend time with clients to figure out the value set they’re building a financial instrument to support. Whether on a large scale investment or a small scale set of purchases, the initial set of values impacts the impact. When a company is making a value proposition to us, they’re trying to engage us as a client and a constituent to their decision making. Will I buy something? Sure. Will I endorse it? perhaps.

Values come down to the personal. Investors in the business of doing good — and by investors, I still mean just about everybody who is either endorsing or putting money into something — can identify certain values that figure in how they spend money. That in turn makes them ultimately responsible for something that they’ve not really been responsible for: the impact that money is having on a set of issues. One financial advisor noted that just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, impact matters most to the investor. Whether you agree with that or not (maybe it matters more to the impacted?), it’s true that until you’ve identified the specific values you’d like to impact, your investment is meaningless. Advisors spend significant time with investors to develop goals and a theory of change.

Two further threads on values are emerging. First, the amount of investment conversation taking place around what the millennial generation is going to do with wealth. Investors know that within the next five to ten years they need to create financial instruments that will meet the demand of this generation, the part of it that will have significant wealth to invest. A search for “millennial values” will quickly turn up many, many articles about what millennials value. The financial investment firm Morgan Stanley has taken this to its logical conclusion, with two recent posts analysing millennial values leading to their own tailored investment platform that dashboards relevant data and allows investors to screen for “over 30 issue areas.” Clearly companies are looking ahead, and seeing opportunity.

A second deals with the important caveat that social enterprise is a tool, not a solution, and that it must exist as one of the ways we solve society’s problems, but working in concert with organizations that are not beholden to markets. Jyoti Sharma in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, puts this into clear relief:

“the focus of social entrepreneurship should be not the “enterprise” but the beneficiary. Its design should flow from, and be anchored to, the needs and capacities of the beneficiaries. Profit-making should be secondary to making impact. Hence, charitable donations and nonprofit capability that can add value to the beneficiary should be a welcome part of the solutions set… A commercial enterprise at scale needs layers for efficient management, controls, standardization, and constant growth — factors that may not allow for the most humane, responsive, and efficient solutions for those in need.”

Sharma has her own list of recommendations for how to build social enterprises that can survive without diluting their mission and service. One important realization for me has been that you can evaluate the good of nonprofits and for profits in a number of shared ways: does the form fulfill the strategy. Is the board diverse, and are the advisors comprehensive and competent in the problem they wish to solve. Are the goalposts, and metrics along the way, the most appropriate. Does the theory of change actually make sense, or is it turtles all the way down?

Unilever is big, and uses its weight to support global norms like the Sustainable Development Goals, and to reward compliance and fulfillment. But many of the businesses seeking to “do good” as their bottom line are startups. And according to some recent research reported in the New York Times, startups are in a slump. “Perhaps most significant, start-ups play a critical role in making the economy as a whole more productive, as they invent new products and approaches, forcing existing businesses to compete or fall by the wayside.” If startups are slumping, is it going to be hard for them to find a way to sustain doing good? And if so, is there a role for some kinds of alternate forms of support to help them out? (spoiler alert: I think there are. See the next post).

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