Five things Canada’s social purpose ecosystem needs right now to grow

The summit highlighted important conversations about Canada’s social purpose economy and how to continue its much needed growth.

Why It Matters

As Canada is juggling a number of urgent environmental and social crises, the need for organizations to consider their impact on the world is more important than ever. Social purpose leaders are pushing for businesses to bring their purpose to life by collaborating across sectors to create an ecosystem for a greener and more inclusive economy.

Coro Strandberg, President, Strandberg Consulting and Co-Founder, Social Purpose Institute, moderator and panelists Nadia Hamilton, Founder and CEO, Magnusmode, Gary Wade, President, Unilever Canada, David Simmonds, SVP, Office of the CEO, Corporate Initiatives, Canada Life, and David Redfern, CEO Eastern Canada, Lafarge Canada, speak to “Profit on Purpose: The Role of Purpose in the Modern Corporation” at the kick-off plenary panel of the Propelling Purpose Summit, November 17, 2021.

This story is in partnership with the Social Purpose Institute at United Way BC

The way businesses operate is changing. 

The concept of shareholder primacy — that the sole focus of business is to generate profits for shareholders — is under attack. Businesses are rethinking why they exist and are considering their greater impact on the world now more than ever. 

With multiple crises impacting Canada including COVID-19 — like the opioid crisis, rising inequality, climate change, growing recognition of systemic racism, and the housing crisis — it’s become crucial for businesses to feed the economy in a way which nourishes society, rather than deplete it further. 

First, what exactly is a social purpose business? It’s defined as a business whose reason for existing is to create a better world. These businesses provide benefits to society and aim at having a larger impact than simply making a profit. They are a force for good.

The Propelling Purpose Summit, held during Canada’s first-ever Purpose in Business Week, dove into conversations around why creating a purpose economy is more important than ever, and how businesses can start their own journey. It was designed to build Canada’s social purpose community and co-create a purpose economy roadmap towards an economy powered by the pursuit of long-term well-being for all in which business and regulatory and financial systems foster an equitable, flourishing, resilient future.

Here are five key tips to help businesses accelerate the purpose economy and grow their own social purpose from two jam-packed days at the summit. 


Understand and define your purpose first — then work on getting people onboard

In the panel titled Profit on Purpose: The Role of Purpose in the Modern Corporation, David Redfern, president and CEO of Lafarge Eastern Canada, said the first step in transitioning into a social purpose business is to look at who you are as an organization, understand what the world needs, and find the intersection between those two elements. 

“In Lafarge, we looked at our social footprint, we looked at our environmental footprint, and then the final piece we added to the mix was the UNSDGs (United Nation Sustainable Development Goals). That just helped us frame the conversation,” said Redfern. “Then you go out and you start talking with your stakeholders, with your customers, with your employees to percolate that into a purpose that makes sense for not only your internal company but the stakeholders at large.”


Find a concrete way to have impact through capital 

Investors, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is, speakers said. Investors, boards, and accountants play an important role in driving social purpose in businesses. Investors, particularly,  can enable changes through impact investing — investing made for social benefit. 

Roger Beauchemin, president and CEO at Addenda Capital, and chair of the board of the Responsible Investment Association, explained that not only are employers driven by social purpose, but so are customers and investors. With this in mind, businesses need to make intentful investments that can deliver on financial goals as well as good outcomes with social purpose at their core.

“Finance is really the vascular system for society. What gets financed, gets built, gets designed, gets done,” said Beauchemin. “If you align that capital with good outcomes, you’re basically irrigating better muscles for society, muscles that attain good outcomes. And by 2030, I think this will become a mainstream approach.”


Engage customers on your social purpose 

Many panelists agreed that rather than positioning customers as a passive onlooker of a business’ social purpose, businesses need to actively engage customers on it. “You are activating your purpose through your brands and your products and through your operations,” said Coro Strandberg, president of Strandberg Consulting and co-founder of the Social Purpose Institute.

Showing customers through tangible actions that your business is actually serious about its social purpose is crucial, because it helps them see that the purpose, whatever it may be, is being taken seriously. 

For example, one of Unilever Canada’s brands, Hellman’s, focused their social purpose on tackling the food waste problem in Canada — which is the second highest country per capita in the world for amount of food waste. They launched a campaign called, ‘Make Taste Not Waste’ to encourage people to utilize what they have in their kitchens when cooking. Their app Fridge Night also helps with this problem while giving people recipe ideas based on what they have at home. 

Gary Wade, president of Unilever Canada, said it’s really important for businesses to reinforce their purpose through actions, whether it’s with products, initiatives or services. When you walk the walk rather than just talk to talk, customers can understand that what a business says externally to the public is reflected in their practices internally. 


Cross sectoral engagement is needed to create a purpose ecosystem

Conversations around social purpose are definitely in the mainstream for businesses, but many are still experimenting with how to make it work. To this, social purpose experts agree that cross-sectoral collaboration is key. When different industries and sectors work together they can create a larger purpose ecosystem. 

“We have this really big country, but we’re a really small population, so we need to think like a system,” said Allyson Hewitt, vice president of impact at MaRS Discovery District, adding that creating a platform for businesses to share their purpose journeys can help others on the same path.

“The complexity of [this] kind of systems work and these ecosystem-based efforts requires us to evaluate our progress along the way,” said Mike Rowlands, president and CEO of Junxion Strategy. Organizations seeking to build a purpose ecosystem should be prepared to course correct, adapt, and change their approaches as they work, he said.


Governments want to be involved in creating a purpose economy, but they need help 

Though the private sector is leading the way to building and strengthening the purpose economy, many governments on the municipal, provincial, and federal level want to help out as well.

During the summit’s panel on this topic, panelists representing government bodies shared their experience working with social purpose businesses, and their ability to connect sectors. 

“Cities are pretty tapped into networks like non-profit, social enterprise, and local businesses — they certainly are in Vancouver — and I think we’ve created quite an enabling environment…but we need to do more as municipalities to assure connection between these groups and help support the platforms so that they can build these relationships,” said Mary Clare Zak, managing director of social policy for the City of Vancouver. 

But Zak also mentioned that municipal governments need more guidance in terms of how to support social purpose businesses, as well as finding new ways to bridge various sectors like the private sector and not-for-profit sector. At the same time, private sector collaboration with the government will allow social purpose businesses to find connection points to other sectors to further their purpose and create positive impact.