Can you really put purpose before profit in big business?

Liz Cook, a Cisco employee and Big Issue volunteer, makes the case for the wider benefits of corporate benevolence

Apple committed £1.9 billion ($2.5bn) last year to combat California’s housing crisis. Sure, this is one per cent of the company’s yearly revenue, but it’s been thoughtfully siphoned into several projects, including a £38.3m ($50m) pledge to Silicon Valley’s sustainable housing and homeless prevention organisation, Destination: Home.

Destination: Home’s board, most notably its CEO Jennifer Loving, have spent their lives working to end homelessness. They carry the clout needed to help Santa Clara County’s 7,394 homeless.

Apple refers to the partnership as “working closely with leading experts” and Loving says Apple’s contribution allows her organisation to “scale two proven strategies”. Apple may have reinvented the phone, but they are leaving the wheel well alone here. No gimmicks, or Apple Watches for homeless people, just correctly channelled support. What’s more, companies who consistently top employee-led surveys such as Great Place to Work and Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work are those that score highly on mission (read: purpose), values and trust. The happiest employees – for example those at Cisco, Hilton, Salesforce, Mars, EY –  are working for companies who have made big commitments to giving back to the community.

There’s no shame in profit sitting alongside people and planet – just make it a good deal for your client as well as suppliers

As Richard Layard outlines in his book Can We Be Happier?, top markers of a happy individual are good mental health and a sense of purpose in their work. The happiest countries – Finland, followed by the rest of Scandinavia – were more trusting, more generous, had adequate social support, freedom, health and income. So, giving employees the chance to make an impact, act generously, exercise and earn at work results in a deliriously happy workforce.

I, readers, am one of the delirious. For eight years I’ve been working for technology firm Cisco (voted 2019’s Best Workplace in the World), and I’m spending my five allotted days a year volunteering my writing skills with the editorial team at The Big Issue.

DID YOU KNOW…

If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

That’s a bit of a stretch, I hear you say. You could be building water pumps, teaching code or serving in soup kitchens. But I’m also seven weeks away from having a baby, so tapping my fat fingers on a keyboard to help get a brilliant magazine into the hands of vendors is one way I can sensibly make a difference. Of course, next week I will still have a sales target to deliver, remaining no more important than my 70,000 colleagues, but my sense of contribution to a cause will absolutely make me more productive, because I will be grateful, inspired and refreshed.

So, how can the contribution of soft-handed office workers truly make a difference?

We’ve learned from the billionaire Elon Musk that trying to help the world by doing things your way (cave submarine, anyone?) isn’t always useful or welcome. It comes back to sensible partnering with the experts. Heavyweight Goliaths teaming up with focused and victorious Davids.

When volunteering last year in my local Trussell Trust foodbank, it was clear that the Cisco-Trussell Trust relationship is symbiotic. Where Trussell Trust has developed a unique programme for Cisco employees to volunteer in clear and useful ways, Cisco helps with issues such as GDPR, cybersecurity and, crucially, with helping translate and analyse Trussell Trust’s vast data on foodbanks. Cisco and Trussell Trust can fight food poverty better working together rather than separately.

Another Goliath teaming well with David, Legal & General has leapt into affordable housing projects, making a £44.6m investment in housing homeless families last year by partnering with Croydon Council. Working with the council’s frontline team means accommodation is correctly managed and given to those on Croydon’s waiting list, which currently numbers more than 2,000. In turn, Croydon Councillor Alison Butler said L&G’s investment saves them around £20m in loan costs, helping more families in the long term. That’s a huge win for the public and big business. No wonder almost 70 per cent of L&G employees say they would refer a friend.

Purpose-led doesn’t have to mean a drop in profits, it means making profits ethical. As businesses move towards the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit, all three should hold equal value.

It’s a brave step for older companies, but look at Unilever, whose 26 sustainable living brands grew 46 per cent faster than the rest of the business, delivering 70 per cent of overall turnover growth in 2017. Consumers and employees welcome the change – they want their hand soap and their workplace to align to their values.

It’s right to be sceptical when altruism is so good for reputation. The key to sustainability is upkeep. It’s not acceptable for Goliaths to give charitably but ignore the wages of factory workers. It’s not enough if you’ve banned disposable coffee cups but your supply chain is oozing carbon emissions. There’s no shame in profit sitting alongside people and planet – just make it a good deal for your client as well as suppliers. Distribute wealth fairly. Improve the world with your product.

Get this right, and you really are making the planet a happier place.