Can the Purpose Movement Survive All This?

Here’s why best-selling Dan Goleman is optimistic organizations won’t go back to a “only profits matter” mentality.

Daniel Goleman, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and co-developer of the Goleman EI online learning platform, is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available now. 

As multiple industries have taken a hit and millions of workers have been furloughed, the question seems natural: Will a focus on purpose be erased by the darkness of the financial downturn?

But there’s a flaw in the question itself. Purpose and profit aren’t opposite sides of the same coin. A Korn Ferry study found that over four years, purpose-driven consumer-products firms grew their sales at an average annual rate that was 6.5% higher than that of their peers. And when surveyed, 90% of executives said that a commitment to purpose- driven leadership produces long-term financial benefits.

For many leaders, a sense of purpose hasn’t been eclipsed by the crisis over the last several months; it’s been catalyzed by it. When the coronavirus shutdowns began in the US, foundations across the country responded. Since March, more than $11.4 billion has been moved to nonprofits on the front lines of the pandemic. On a local level, the crisis has catalyzed purpose-driven nonprofits such as Feeding People to help local small businesses provide healthy meals to healthcare workers across New York.

If anything, purpose-driven gestures and financial contributions have been a boon during these uncertain times. Dr. George James, a licensed marriage and family therapist and chief innovation officer at the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia, recently said these actions give people a feeling that they can make a difference in these difficult times, even when everything else feels out of control.

Take the philanthropic reaction catalyzed by the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing wave of protests. The nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization Color of Change saw so many corporate donations come their way that they had to create a separate fund to redistribute them. (The organization also quadrupled its membership, to 7 million people, in only a matter of days.)

Of course, money isn’t the only way to do something meaningful. Brands across the world have been called to leverage their influence over the past two months. The Ad Council, an US nonprofit that has been producing public service announcements since 1942, exemplifies the role marketing and communications have in driving purpose.

You may remember their Emmy-winning “Love Has No Labels” campaign launched in 2015. Produced by the Ad Council and funded by brands such as Coca Cola, Pepsi, State Farm, and Unilever, the campaign was formed to support diversity and inclusion, asking each sponsor to kick off the campaign by removing their brand labels on social media for a day.

“All our messages lead with purpose and tie back to a cause. It's not a brand first message,” Laurie Keith, their VP of Media, Social & Emerging recently told Forbes. The Ad Council currently heads up about 40 active campaigns. “We are leading the nation’s efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus. There’s currently 20+ campaigns under that umbrella. We have a lot going on all the time.”

When it comes to purpose, the power of branding and messaging shouldn’t be underestimated.  Whether or not companies are able to donate at this particular moment, every major brand is being asked to leverage their voice for something meaningful.

“Companies of all sizes must respond, whether they are used to address social issues or not,” Simon Mainwaring, founder and CEO of We First, a consultancy that builds purpose-driven brands, recently told Forbes. “Black Lives Matter is top of mind for consumers. Investors want to support responsible and defensible brands. Employees want to work for companies that share their values. The media is holding companies and their leadership accountable.”

Given how much purchasing power the millennial generation has, companies will need to listen to their demands. While money might be tight these days, there is a growing need to say and do something meaningful. Purpose isn’t being erased. It’s becoming even more of an imperative.

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