insight magazine

The Business of Making a Social Impact

Corporations, communities, and careerists can all do better by doing good. By Carolyn Tang Kmet | Spring 2019

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As technology continues to break down geographic and demographic barriers, greater insight into the plight of others has spawned a collective heightened sense of social awareness. So, it should come with little surprise that emerging generations of workers exhibit a deep desire for doing good, and this philosophy is now permeating the corporate realm. Many of today’s organizations must now focus on a triple bottom line, where stakeholder value is measured not only by profitability but also by social and environmental impact — but what does that mean for the future of business and the people driving it?

“The world has become a smaller place,” says Sylvia Panek, AIF, an investment advisor and financial planner with Natural Investments, a nationwide advisory firm specializing in socially responsible, impact-driven investing. She credits our digital information age with fundamentally shifting the public consciousness. “As workers and as consumers, people today more closely feel how exploitative traditional corporate practices can be. Subsequently, they are pushing back and holding corporations to higher standards,” Panek says. “A company does not exist in an isolated bubble and cannot operate as if investors are the only group that matters anymore.”

To say today’s employees actively seek out socially responsible companies might even be an understatement. According to a 2016 Cone Communications study, 76 percent of millennials consider a company’s social and environmental commitment when deciding where to work, 75 percent would take a pay cut to work for a socially responsible company, and 64 percent won’t take a job if a potential employer doesn’t have strong corporate social responsibility practices. One could argue those percentages are likely higher today given how our society has become ever more sensitive to wide-ranging social, political, and environmental issues. And, in fact, a more recent 2017 Cone Communications survey found that 84 percent of consumers want companies to support women’s rights and 87 percent would buy a product because a company stood up for an issue they cared about.

From a corporate point of view, that means organizations that incorporate making a positive social impact into their missions should have an easier time attracting and retaining employees and customers. “Everyone wants to be a part of something great. It’s not just about going to work — young people are looking to make an impact,” says Houston-based community engagement professional Courtney Taylor, MBA.

For Taylor, making a positive social impact, both personally and professionally, is a philosophy instilled from an early age. As a child, she recalls going door-to-door with her grandfather one hot Houston summer day, delivering fans to people who didn’t have air conditioning. “I never forgot that day because it showed me how everyone is not as fortunate. It showed me the responsibility we have to help each other, and it showed me love,” Taylor says.

Today, Taylor incorporates her love for helping others into her everyday job through developing partnerships with community organizations, developing volunteer opportunities, and securing program funding. “I feel that we have a responsibility to lift each other up,” Taylor says. “It put a fire in me to start creating some additional projects around philanthropy and to be involved in systemic change. Whether the cause is for at-risk youth, breast cancer, hunger, social justice, I am there.”

Her desire and effort to link a career with a cause is not entirely unique; rather, it is what more and more millennials and Gen Zers are aiming to achieve. In light of that, Taylor suggests companies that provide opportunities for volunteer work and actively design programming around driving social change will see positive outcomes.

To cite Seth Green, founding director of Loyola University Chicago’s Baumhart Center: “True empathy and a service orientation toward others makes us better thinkers, happier people, and more satisfied with our lives.”

In Taylor’s interpretation, the morale boost can “lead to increased productivity, which will help the overall bottom line of an organization. It’s a win for the employee, the company, and the community.”

Conscious Capital

“The question of how we build a more equitable society is the most urgent and important question of our time,” according to Green, who says that making a social impact is good for the mind, heart, and soul — and business. After all, not only are socially responsible companies more attractive to potential employees, they are also increasingly more attractive to prospective investors.

“Doing good in business was once ‘nice.’ Today, it is a ‘must’ for any company that wants to attract top talent, investment, and operational partners,” Green says. “Many investors now measure the triple bottom line, or environmental and social impact alongside financial performance.” And, in fact, many investors now strive almost solely to affect social change.

Benefit Chicago — a collaboration between The Chicago Community Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and Calvert Impact Capital — came to be partly because investors today are less willing to accept social inequities and are instead looking for opportunities to take an active role in society. The organization serves as a conduit between investors looking to make a positive social impact and promising businesses and organizations in underserved neighborhoods that need access to capital.

Benefit Chicago evaluates potential opportunities in much the same way as any traditional investment, looking for evidence of strong leadership, solid organizational structure, a thorough business plan, and a proven market. “Where we differ is that we’re willing to work with organizations that may have a little more risk than what you would typically see but also still have a real passion and idea,” says William W. Towns, Ph.D., MBA, Benefit Chicago’s executive director. “There are certain areas of Chicago that, for a number of reasons, don’t receive capital. You can see the disparities in the city. But if we’re going to have a strong Chicago, we need strong South and West sides.”

To illustrate, this past December, Benefit Chicago provided Chicago Community Loan Fund (CCLF) with a $5 million loan to aid in repurposing vacant Chicago Public School buildings on the South and West sides. The first redevelopment is the conversion of the former Overton School in the Bronzeville neighborhood, which will be transformed into a business incubator. “For local residents, a closed school signals distress and abandonment,” says Calvin Homes, CCLF’s president. “A revived and repurposed school is a beacon of hope for a neighborhood. It provides needed services and amenities, boosts traffic for nearby businesses, and encourages additional investment.”

At the time of writing, Benefit Chicago had raised $96 million toward its $100 million goal and has issued over $25 million in loans. “A lot of times, we’re underwriting the financial aspect, which is important, but we’re also underwriting the hearts and minds of the leadership and the mission,” Dr. Towns says.

Social Venture Partners (SVP) is another entity striving for social change in Chicago using conscious capital and more. The organization is comprised of investors, entrepreneurs, business professionals, attorneys, educators, and philanthropists who invest time, money, and expertise in Chicagoland nonprofits.

“Our founding partners believed that the route to greater social impact is to leverage philanthropic dollars with contributions of time, talent, and connections to help innovative nonprofits scale their work,” explains Evelyn Kuo Fitzgerald, SVP’s executive director.

Your Impact

It’s important to remember that it’s not just big corporations and investors that have the power to drive social change and make a social impact. While the deep desire for doing good that emerging generations of workers exhibit may be inspiring corporate reactions, it still takes individuals committed to causes to make real, lasting social impacts.

Taylor urges young professionals who want to make a difference to get out there and just do it. “Figure out what you are passionate about,” she says. “Many nonprofits and community organizations have created young professional groups that offer opportunities for networking, community service, and social gatherings with like-minded individuals.”

Fitzgerald’s advice for those yearning to make a positive social impact through their life’s work is to participate in engaged philanthropy and to maximize impact by contributing not only dollars but also intellectual and social capital. “Consider joining a group or nonprofit board where you can roll up your sleeves and engage in skills-based volunteering that takes advantage of the expertise that you bring to the table,” Fitzgerald says.

No matter what your background is, everyone has something to offer, Dr. Towns adds. “If you’re an accountant, if you’re a marketing professional, or sales person, there are always opportunities to add a social impact lens to your work,” he says. “Think beyond the philanthropic and nonprofit space. For-profit organizations have contributed greatly to societal issues and improvement, whether it’s reducing their impact on the ozone or creating spaces for women in leadership.”

Expanding on Dr. Towns’ advice, Green encourages young professionals to seek jobs where they can learn a lot, work for people they admire, and use their talents to authentically help others. “Very few people look back at their careers and celebrate their wealth accumulation; almost all judge their careers by the difference they make in others’ lives,” he says.

“Like begets like,” Panek adds. She urges young careerists to surround themselves with like-minded business associates. “The goal,” she says, “is to truly build a better world, one that is bigger than each one of us individually, and it’s best done together.”

Seeking Social Impact

 

He started out as an investment banker in London, but quickly realized the job wasn’t for him. He felt uninspired and chronically depressed. So, Leon Logothetis walked away from corporate life, trading in his seat behind a desk for a saddle on a motorbike and a life on the road in pursuit of “true human connection.” now as the host of his own Netflix series, “The Kindness Diaries,” Logothetis circumnavigates the globe on a vintage motorbike, experiencing the kindness of strangers and giving them life-changing gifts in return.
“Social impact is about taking risks and going outside of your comfort zone,” Logothetis says. “When I finally started traveling and connecting with others, I realized I had found my calling.”

This June, Logothetis will keynote the Illinois CPA Society’s Young Professionals Leadership Conference where he’ll remind young leaders to examine their paths in life, and to recognize that even as mere individuals, they have the power to make an impact in the world.

“I’ve seen people with nothing go out of their way to help others in amazing ways. These people have nothing, yet they changed my life forever. If they can do it, so can you,” Logothetis beams. “It’s about taking risks and looking outside of yourself. you have more power than you know, and how you show up in the world matters — it matters profoundly.”