Business as a force for the greater Good – Purpose or CSR?

Last week I came across an article that triggered me in several ways, which I will outline below. My intention is not to pick on the author or the presented viewpoints, in fact I agree to some of them actually, however, I believe that looking at the statements closer unveils a fundamental issue that organizations need to address in the future and that many are struggling with currently.

Purpose statement as guiding star

jplenio / Pixabay


Your company’s purpose is not to save the world

The article’s headline was ‘Your company’s purpose is not to save the world’ and appeared on the Strategy+business website, written by Alan Siegel. The main message is that most organizations are confusing their purpose with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The article focuses then on how the crafting of a clear and concretely articulated purpose statement has helped different organizations to grow their brand recognition in an authentic an effective way.

Purpose shouldn’t be confused with corporate responsibility programs, through which companies fund sustainability, education, and research, or take a stand on social issues.

– Alan Siegel


Purpose vs CSR ?

What if the purpose of business IS to fund sustainability, education, and research, or take a stand on social issues? What if CSR is not a nice add-on for organizations?  What if all the activities that fall under a CSR program should be the reason why a company exists in the first place? The purpose of the company should not be different from its CSR activities, they should eventually be integrated, merged and be the same!


A breast for a breast

What could happen if an organization has a purpose that is different from its CSR activities?

Let’s take a look at KFC, Kentucky Fried Chicken, a fast-food franchise that belongs to Yum!. Yum!’s purpose is ‘a world with more Yum!‘, which could be translated into ‘feed the world’, which is the headline of their 2015 annual report (PDF file). This purpose translates into rapid growth of the franchise brands, which include Pizza Hut and Taco Bell as well, where on average seven new restaurants are opened daily around the world.

Put simply, the purpose of KFC is to serve people food, especially fried chicken.

One action that KFC took in the past, which could be labeled as CSR, is supporting the breast cancer awareness campaign. In order to raise awareness they sold their fried chicken in pink buckets and donated 50 cents of each bucket sold.

On the one hand a positive activity. From another perspective totally unrelated to the purpose or mission of the company. Even worse, the probably well-intended activities are counter-productive, as eating fast food contributes to overweight and obesity increases the risk of gaining breast cancer, as Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, says.

“They are raising money for women’s health by selling a product that’s bad for your health … it’s hypocrisy.”

– Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action


Psychological safety through purpose statement

The company’s purpose should be its guiding north star. Everything the company and its representatives (read members, which include managers and employees) say, do or value should align and create cohesion. Short and long-term actions should bring the whole organization closer to fulfilling its purpose.

It becomes problematic, since it creates uncertainty for members of the organization, if the purpose is to narrow, or focuses only on its product for example. The challenge arises when the demand for that product is decreasing, because the whole identity and culture of that organization is build around that product. It will be challenging for an organization with such a narrow purpose to create a turn-around since not only an alternative product offering has to be created but also a whole new identity around it.

On the other hand, if the purpose is too broad it also creates anxiety, because the options to fulfill the purpose are simply too many, potentially leading to paralysis. A point that the author makes in the above article and thus encourages to craft a more focused purpose statement. Then again we are encouraged to dream big, to have these hairy, audacious goals and visions that should be 10 times greater as what you immediately set out for. The reasoning is clear, even if we will not reach our dream, we will have probably come further than we would have if we were just to go after our initially set 1/10th goal. 

We know the power of manifestation, it is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. That what we focus on will grow. So better focus on our greatest ambitions and desires then. No time for playing small anymore.


Evolution of values

There is a shift happening in the world, some call it a paradigm shift, others a change in values. I cannot hide myself from those advocating for businesses that work for the greater good, businesses that are a force and catalyst for change. The author of the mentioned article claims to be an expert and highlights his work with brands for five decades. Staying too long in the same place can sometimes make our perspective rigid, focusing on what is, and blur it for alternatives and what is about to come. A fresh perspective from less experienced people might be eye-opening.

This week a collective of 14 people, where I am one of them, started a consultancy network that works for what is best FOR the world. Emprogage is facilitating the paradigm shift from Being Best in the World towards Best FOR the World. An audacious claim, for sure. However, we believe in the power of our purpose being our guiding star and that following it will at some point lead to its manifestation.


Engagement and collective responsibility

Another aspect that the article touches on is that there are two key ingredients for crafting and implementing a meaningful and effective purpose program. The first is to “leverage the intellectual firepower of your organization to generate a distinctive, actionable idea of what your purpose should be.” In my opinion a purpose statement should not only ‘leverage the intellectual firepower’, but it should also touch the hearts of those who work in and outside the organization. Activating the emotional senses of people adds another dimension. Anyway, engaging all members in the process of shaping a purpose statement will definitely create a common sense of ownership and proudness that cannot be compared to a purpose program that is induced top-down.

Which actually brings us to the second aspect for crafting and implementing a meaningful and effective purpose program. The author highlights the importance of an effective leader. In his perspective a leader has “personal will, courage, and compassion to take responsibility and actively model the vision expressed in the purpose statement and use it to motivate employees.” But how would that work in a flat organization? Emprogage is self-managed. Every member has the responsibility to act on the things that she senses are crucial for the situation at hand right now. It is a collective responsibility that is shared by everyone in the organization.


Two perspectives that are valid

What does that leave us with now?

We can agree that purpose “should become a driving force in decision making, replacing traditional, predictable mission and vision statements.” Then we need to understand that there is an evolution taking place in how we work. how we design organizations, how we architecture processes based on evolving values. The context and message conveyed in the article is addressing a target audience driven by rationality, achievement and effectiveness. On the other hand the people and organizations that HumanBusiness, as well as Emprogage, engages in a dialogue with are driven by a longing for community, bringing our whole self to work, including emotions and even intuition, as well as creating planetary regeneration. For the later it comes at no surprise that a purpose statement is not separate from CSR activities, but that activities for the greater good should ultimately be the reason why the company exists in the first place. For all others this article here offers another perspective of what business could be.


What is your organization’s purpose?

Emprogage can help your organization to craft an authentic, emotional and engaging purpose statement that is Best FOR the World.



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About Businesshumanizer

My name is Jens and I write about organizational evolution to inspire a way of organizing work that is human-centric. Find me at

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