Trifecta of goodness: a model for social impact integrity

Ok, so you run a business and you want to create social impact. Where to start?

It’s an oversimplified question for a complex challenge. There are many ways to use business as a force for good, and there are plenty of strategic frameworks to help business leaders figure out how. For a hands-on guide to social entrepreneurship, you can check out the Models for Impact toolkit from L.A.-based boutique design studio verynice, or if you’d prefer a more corporate research-based guide, see global consulting giant Deloitte’s “Four corporate archetypes to drive social impact” report.

To distill these and other similar concepts, I created my own framework, which I call the “trifecta of goodness.” It’s a simple way of thinking about how a social impact strategy involves balancing a trio of activities. Consider it the “three-legged stool” of corporate citizenship.

While it’s not necessary to do all three activities in order to have positive impact, this model shows that there are multiple entry points to different types of solutions that work best together.

Creating a win-win-win scenario.

As enso co-founder Sebastian Buck outlined in the “three acts of purpose-driven business,” the opportunity for total transformation occurs when the desire to create social impact comes from inside rather than outside of the business. In other words, progress occurs when management teams make their social mission a core business priority, rather than just a CSR or marketing tactic. This can result in better business models, better internal practices to engage employees, and better responses to serve communities.

Once leaders have intrinsic motivation to unite their business with social impact, there are still several ways to deliver results. They are usually most effective when working in tandem with each other.

Doing good: This can involve taking extra resources — people, time, money — to “give back” to the community. It could come in the form of charitable donations, corporate sponsorships, pro bono service, volunteering and other types of philanthropy. It could also involve driving energy, awareness or dollars towards advocacy and political campaigns. Traditional corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs tend to focus their efforts on doing good, since it’s usually easy to implement, easy to quantify, and easy to publicize. The perceived benefits to society are quickly understood by everyone from staff to shareholders. On their own, these activities generally do not fulfill the potential of a company to create long-lasting social or environmental impact, since they are usually additive or extractive to the core business, but they can be a good start to deliver immediate tangible results.

Example: Cloud computing company Salesforce touts a model of “integrated philanthropy,” whereby the company donates its technology to schools, makes time for employees to volunteer in the community, and awards grant funding towards various causes.
Photo via Salesforce.org

Being good: At the very least, this involves satisfying the economic, legal and ethical requirements of being a responsible company. Mission-driven companies that go above and beyond their corporate obligations understand that profits and purpose are interlinked. In doing so, they create so-called Shared Value, or aligning business opportunities with social needs to generate revenues in a way that intrinsically provides social or environmental benefits. In a social enterprise model, it could mean things like “buy-one, give-one” purchasing (popularized by TOMS), human-centered design of services or products (practiced by IDEO.org) or sustainable supply chains (exemplified by Unilever) or cross-sector partnerships (think IBM.) I would argue that “being good” can also refer to the way a company and its leadership create internal workplace culture, for example, hiring with diversity in mind, training staff on topics like sexual harassment prevention or “unconscious bias,” and offering workplace health and wellness benefits. In the evolution of a purpose-driven organization, “being good” is the ultimate goal, since social impact is at the core of the business.

Example: Everytable is a food startup on a mission to “bring healthy, affordable food to every table in the country, with no one left out.” (Full disclosure: enso worked with Everytable to establish its brand positioning, platform, narrative, name, and visual ecosystem.) The company does this through a dynamic pricing model, setting the price of its meals according to the neighborhoods it serves and thereby making it possible to bring healthy food into “food deserts” at prices competitive with fast food chains.
Photo via Everytable

Talking about doing or being good: This is essentially the story of a company, brought to life through consumer-facing communications. It comprises all efforts in branding and marketing, advertising, public relations, social media, and corporate disclosures, such as annual reports. In the age of transparency, audiences expect mission-driven brands to tell authentic stories that motivate people to engage in a mission or cause bigger than a singular product or service. When a brand leads with purpose (“being good”), the story of social impact is easier to tell and more believable than if it were just promoting good deeds (“doing good.”)

Example: Crowdfunding platform Kickstarter strives to help creators “make a lasting impact on society, culture, and the economy.” It tells the story of its “creative impact” through an online annual report. You can read more about how the company is committed to causes like “empowering young girls everywhere” or “solving issues through technology” on the Impact section of its website.
Screenshot via Kickstarter

Well-rounded brands.

The magic happens when all three activities — doing good, being good and talking about both — are aligned with full integrity, not in a moral sense but by the structural definition. The above examples of Salesforce, Everytable and Kickstarter are actually pretty well-rounded social impact brands. All three “legs” of each business are evenly supported, so customers can feel confident in their choice to stand by the company’s products, services and mission.

Photo via Patagonia

Another oft-cited example of a company that exemplifies this trifecta of goodness is Patagonia. Some proof points:

Doing good: The company gives 1% of sales to support environmental organizations around the world. It also offers several “employee activism” programs to donate time or money to environmental causes.
Being good: Patagonia takes great care to reduce resource consumption in its materials supply chain and technology. In addition to green business practices, it also follows a code of conduct for fair, safe and healthy working conditions.
Talking about doing and being good: The company has a clearly stated mission statement to “cause no unnecessary harm.” It shares details of its social and environmental impact through a detailed “reference library.” It tells stories through a blog, books, “field reports,” and documentary films. It also runs campaigns and initiatives like Worn Wear, which celebrates customer stories about repairing, reusing and recycling Patagonia clothing.

Avoiding uneven impact.

As you can see, doing good, being good, and talking about both are mutually supportive. When one of these three activities is under-resourced or over-emphasized, however, the stability and authenticity of a purpose-driven brand is thrown out of whack. This imbalance can quickly erode consumer trust, affinity or loyalty.

Consumers can all too well cite egregious examples of this imbalance from industries like big oil and big pharma. Just read a couple of recent headlines:

Companies who unsuccessfully try to position themselves as mission-driven brands may respond to public backlash with quick talking points in a reactive PR blitz — the equivalent of stuffing a folded cocktail napkin under the uneven leg of a shaky piece of furniture. It works, but not for long. It’s difficult for consumers to believe an apology if it’s not supported by real fixes.

A fragile balance.

Often the instability in the trifecta of goodness is not so obvious. A business may be telling a compelling narrative about giving large sums of money to charity, for example, but if its employees are miserable and disengaged at work, is it truly doing everything it can to create world value? This hypothetical case of a crisis of employee engagement, in reality, has severe repercussions on the world economy — a problem that something like charitable donations can’t fix.

Another company could be the pinnacle of environmental sustainability, for example, but if it doesn’t promote its efforts through compelling storytelling, it could be overshadowed by other eco-friendly brands that are more vocal and, therefore, miss out on a huge opportunity to engage more customers in its mission.

Illustration via The Body Shop

Case in point: All-natural cosmetics and skincare company The Body Shop recently launched an “Enrich Not Exploit” commitment to be “the world’s most ethical and truly sustainable global business,” even though for the past 40 years it has always believed business could be a force for good. Its pioneering founder and human rights activist, Anita Roddick, believed that “the business of business should not just be about money, it should be about responsibility.”

In an interview with Sustainable Brands, Jessie Macneil-Brown, The Body Shop’s Senior Manager for Campaigns & Corporate Responsibility, explained the rationale behind The Body Shop’s new strategy, citing consumer expectations and brand transparency:

“We feel that transparency about the social and environmental exploitation that occurs within business is something that is very much needed at this moment in time….
We recognise that expectations around sustainability and ethics are beginning to have much wider implications for business in general. We’ve been doing a lot of research internally around the desires and aspirations of consumers, and we’ve found that increasingly they expect brands to have purpose. Millennials, particularly, expect the businesses they shop with to have a mission, and for that mission to play an active part in improving the world around them.”

As companies like The Body Shop seek to stay relevant, evaluating a brand using the trifecta framework can be a useful exercise in determining what aspects of social innovation need more attention. In other words, before you can stabilize a wobbly stool, you’ll need to identify parts of the chair that may be loose or broken.

To achieve equilibrium, it’s best to ditch the cocktail napkin and close any gaps by tightening loose screws, repairing glued joints, and maybe smoothing out the whole floor of your business — to go along with our metaphor.

Which leg of your business feels uneven? And what can be done about it?