The Trouble with Good Deeds

This week’s “Giving Tuesday” drive underscored the rise of purpose and social impact in business. But firms must be “authentic.”

A search of the #givingtuesday2019 hashtag on Twitter turns up hundreds of posts from people, charities, and corporations asking for donations or pledging money, products, or services to those in need. The hashtag refers to the worldwide charity drive that falls annually on the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving. 

Created in part to combat the consumerism of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #givingtuesday dovetails with the rise of the purpose movement and social impact in business. But it also complicates matters for corporate leaders, who cynics charge are glossing over the commercialism of the holiday season with a few good deeds. “Organizations need to ensure their commitments are backed up by authentic motives,” says Rick Lash, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry. 

Lash says organizations are no different than people in that their charity is often motivated by a mix of wanting to make a real difference and self-interest. To be sure, a recent study found that the average American does five good deeds a month, ranging from letting someone with fewer items go in front of them in line to donating to charity to buying a meal for a homeless person. But the study also found that people are more likely to give back after they were on the receiving end of a good deed first. 

Similarly, there is a big difference between brands like Patagonia or TOMS that embed social consciousness into their identity and one that is suddenly imbued with purpose. The difference lies in making sure the public, employees, and investors understand the commitment organizations make to live their values. Divina Gamble, a senior client partner and co-leader of Korn Ferry’s Nonprofit practice, says consumers and talent are more loyal to purpose-driven organizations. “Younger generations in particular want to buy from and work for companies that support volunteerism and social causes,” says Gamble. 

That’s part of the reason why organizations are increasingly incorporating non-traditional incentives in compensation packages such as providing matches to employees’ personal donations or including hours to volunteer as part of paid time off. Gamble says such measures lead to higher employee engagement, productivity, and business results. 

Consumers, employees, and investors are aware of this as well, and they are quicker than ever to question the motives of organizations and hold them accountable if their efforts are disingenuous. If leaders are talking about sustainability but not materially changing how they conduct business, consumers and investors will see right through that, for instance. Another example: the increasing number of employee-led protests at organizations around the world over working conditions, pay inequality, diversity and inclusion, and other social causes. 

“Leaders recognize that organizations have an accountability to their communities and the planet to make things better,” says Lash. “But they must commit more than words.”