Linking profit and purpose doesn’t just do good: It can boost the bottom line, attract new business and drive growth

By Gavin Willis

Almost 10 years ago I founded my digital marketing agency, Search Seven. At the time I was clear that I was starting a business in order to make a living – and as all business owners will recognise, businesses must be profitable. But it was essential for me that my day to day working life added something to the wider world. That’s why I made the decision to link profit to purpose in my company, and pledge seven per cent of our annual profits as donations to charity.

I also believe that charity support doesn’t need to be a ‘nice to have’ or an afterthought – it can instead be an integral part of a business model.

The desire to keep the focus of the business broader than simply the numbers of the balance sheet has gone on to shape the way in which the company is run, the clients it attracts and the staff that make us. It’s really written into our DNA as a business. I’m passionate in my belief that businesses can link profit and purpose and reap the rewards internally as well as giving something back. I also believe that charity support doesn’t need to be a ‘nice to have’ or an afterthought – it can instead be an integral part of a business model.

Our experience as a company illustrates the benefit of matching profit and purpose. Over the last eight years, we’ve set about reaching the seven percent target we pledged through a combination of donations, fundraising and events which we organise and lead on behalf of our chosen charities. So far we’ve raised over £50k, going some way to outstrip the 7% we’d originally pledged – a feat we’re obviously incredibly proud of. It was key at the outset to make our purpose not a management driven affair, but something that the whole team is involved in. That’s why the charities we support are chosen collectively – each member of staff selects an organisation that means something to them. This is something I think is really important – staff need to feel part of the process of charity support.

We’re approaching our tenth anniversary as a business, and we’ve decided to launch #Share77k, a campaign which seeks to bring the total raised to £77,000. As part of this, we have identified 10 charities to support over the next two years. At the time of writing, we had no choice but to pause our outside events to kick off our campaign, and of course safety has to be paramount. But we’re adamant that we need to continue to support our chosen charities. Given the pandemic and what will likely be its aftereffects, support for NGOs is more important than ever. Many have lost vital income streams and fundraising opportunities such as events and street fundraising, and all the while major donors are pulling out as they have their own financial difficulties to attend to. To make this already difficult situation more complex, we will need these same charities more and more as levels of hardship increase for individuals and society as a whole.

Ceasing our support is not an option – and so adapting to our new reality, we took our efforts online and hosted a virtual quiz rather than the face to face one we had planned.

The intention of our seven per cent model was not economic – if anything the opposite. Nonetheless, it has been a huge driver of growth and staff retention.

The next few months look set to be tough for individuals and society as a whole. Business has a role to play – but this role goes beyond keeping the economy moving. One way in which companies can give back is by linking their economic purpose to a social one. There are many ways of doing this, and largely the chosen format depends on the business model. For many enterprises, supporting campaigns, causes or charities that are meaningful to people throughout the organisation is a way of having a real, tangible purpose. I want to stress that supporting NGOs should itself be the objective – the criteria is how to give back, not what it might offer you as a business. However, that’s not to say that linking profit and purpose doesn’t bring significant benefits – it does. But approaching the task in the wrong way will be transparent to the causes you want to support, the staff you lead and the wider world.

The intention of our seven per cent model was not economic – if anything the opposite. Nonetheless, it has been a huge driver of growth and staff retention. We’ve gained a reputation in our local Sussex community for being a company that gives back, and this in turn has won us clients – either through prospects joining our events, or clinching new business pitches because our point of difference is one of ethics. We also won an award at the Brighton and Hove Business Awards last year that recognised us for CSR Excellence.

At the same time, it’s had a fantastic impact on our staff. We recently ran some internal research on staff attitudes and satisfaction. We found that the team is proud to be working somewhere where they can make a difference, and we have high levels of satisfaction and productivity. We also have great rates of staff retention – not always a given in my sector nor with millennial employees. A further accidental bonus for us as a company is that this engagement drives productivity. The greater the profits we generate, the greater our donations to charity. Some of our workers have chosen organisations for deeply personal reasons and that means that there is an intrinsic incentive to drive profits. While this wasn’t our intention, it has been a fantastic side effect.

But in determining purpose, it’s not enough just to have an external aim – internal practices must align, too. The decision to link profit and purpose must feel real to staff and not like ‘woke washing’ – employees, chosen causes and the public can sense when things aren’t genuine. Companies considering marrying profit to purpose must think long and hard about who they are and want to be, and what kinds of measures they will implement internally to support the external aims.

For us, the key has been to make support for charities and the amazing work they do part of our culture. As the years have gone by we’ve mastered the art of matching our benefits policy to reflect our ethos, and what our staff find important. Each new starter to the business is encouraged to do a charity event and given £250 match funding in the first year following recruitment, and £150 per year after that. We offer time off for volunteering and charity events, and although the team get a lot out of the organisation-wide events we run, we find ways to celebrate their participation and the time they give materially. What we’ve tried to foster is a culture of support and encouragement around charity engagement – we’re all bought into each other’s activism and really rally round each team member’s actions.

Finally, I believe that profit making activity and a broader social purpose can and should be linked. Business has a role to play in improving local communities and engaging its staff in wider world issues. Though the main focus should be what business can offer, engagement with a cause will often lead to all involved gaining something – be it financial, experiential or simply through satisfaction and enjoyment of work. As the world is shaken by the coronavirus crisis, business owners big and small can play a part in helping to support vital services that will be needed increasingly in the coming months and years. It doesn’t matter how big a business you are – you can still make a difference.

About the Author

Gavin Willis is the CEO of Search Seven. He set up the agency in 2011 with a real passion for changing search and client services. Gavin sees the company as a vehicle to make a difference, with a vision of giving back up to 7% of profits to charities and community projects every year.

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