Is That Business Really Purpose-Driven?

By Chris Olsen

Now more than ever, consumers are spending their money with businesses that are aligned with their values. The rise of social enterprises is providing shoppers with more options for exercising their buying power in a more intentional way. But the definition of a social enterprise is still somewhat elusive, and consumers want reassurances that businesses are actually doing the social good they say they are.

While positivity is my No. 1 strength (really, I’ve taken the CliftonStrengths assessment twice and it was at the very top), at times I’m a bit of a skeptic. As a greater number of companies emerge with promises about how they’re making a difference in the world, I admit I’ve questioned whether some businesses were really purpose-driven. Or, were promises of givebacks and donations purely positioning for publicity?

Recently, I saw an ad for a sandwich franchise that gives back to first responders in local communities. I hadn’t heard of the franchise, so I connected the company to the wildfires in California because that’s what was happening at the time. An internal dialogue began: Is it OK to pull at consumers’ heartstrings to sell sandwiches? How much are they really donating to first responders? Is it enough to make a real impact?

I did some research. As it turns out, the company was co-founded 25 years ago by two brothers who are former firefighters. Then in 2005, they headed to Mississippi during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to donate food to emergency workers and survivors. Following their experience, they created a private foundation dedicated to giving back to first responders.

In 2019, the company expected to donate a million dollars to the foundation. According to GuideStar Charity Navigator, in 2017 the total number of grants awarded by the foundation was 411 totaling $6.6 million. The foundation has donated more than 3,000 grants totaling $29 million since its inception.

So, you may be wondering—is it a social enterprise? In general terms, a social enterprise is a business that puts purpose equal to profit. Does the donation of a penny from each sandwich sold to local firehouses make it a social enterprise? Not exactly. The franchise has a successful giveback program and it’s a model many corporations employ.

But purpose- or mission-driven organizations are something else entirely. They’re built on a foundation of a clearly defined purpose. An example of this is All Square, a grilled cheese sandwich shop in Minneapolis, Minn., founded by former U.S. Housing and Urban Development attorney Emily Turner. All Square is a restaurant that has been dedicated to a civil rights mission since day one.

It’s staffed by former prison inmates who receive a living wage. On Mondays, when the restaurant is closed to the public, employees participate in career and entrepreneurship training. All Square’s purpose: “To ensure that people impacted by the criminal justice system have the financial support and social capital necessary for a bright and productive future.”

While both businesses have been recognized for serving tasty food, there is one big difference between the sandwich franchise and the grilled cheese restaurant: All Square is the HOW to its founder Emily’s WHY. She started the business because she was fed up with a system she’d experienced throughout her legal career. She wanted to play a bigger role in fixing the issues within that system.

Many businesses launch great products or services that aren’t directly connected to the founder’s WHY. But if you’re someone who has a deeper desire to make a difference in the world with your business, it’s important to dig into what motivates you—your WHY. It’s uniquely yours and it’s inevitably what drives your HOW.

Founders who inspire others to get behind them and their business truly own their WHY—they’re what we call fierce founders. They share their WHY in their founder story. They integrate it throughout their company’s key messages and communications channels. This is especially important for women business owners. Because one of the primary reasons women are denied access to critical business resources like loans and venture capital is the inability to communicate their purpose with conviction.

Fierce founders lead with their WHY. They’re authentic and vulnerable and show the world what they stand for. As a result, they attract investors, partners, and supporters who not only align with their values, but who find tremendous value in the brand and their connection to it.

Next time you’re wondering if a business is really purpose-driven, do a little digging. If its founder is leading with their WHY, there’s often lots of social proof.

About the author: Chris Olsen is a radio veteran turned communications consultant, educator and author of “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose.” Through her work as a consultant partnering with startups, Chris realized her WHY—to support women-owned businesses in confidently communicating their purpose and impact, setting them up for entrepreneurial success. She created My Founder Story as a platform for doing so.

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