How much do motives matter?

This business question has always irritated me

There are many ways to do good in business, just as there are many motivations for doing so.

So what qualifies as a good motive, a bad motive, or just a nice idea?

In this article:

The problem of perfection

I like things to be perfect, and it irritates me when they're not.

I like ideas to be perfect: complete, clean, considered, and fully formed; and it irritates me when they're not.

  • Life's not perfect, and that irritates me too.

Sadly, I've discovered my irritation response is probably my trigger to create better, and we all like better. A well-meaning friend reminded me that 'natural pearls form when an irritant works its way into an oyster and the calcified response becomes the pearl'. Cold comfort (especially for the oyster).

Most business owners would acknowledge the tensions created from this love-hate relationship of waiting for perfection versus the desire to be prolific. This tension of perpetually unfinished ideas is an ever-present business reality, particularly when it comes to discussing ‘doing good in business’ and its commercial and social realities.

Commercial businesses doing social good

Today, many businesses are adding the words ‘philanthropy and giving back’ to their day-to-day language, processes, and even client communications. Some business owners are going so far as to align their focus with the UN Sustainability Goals, some adopt external certifications like the B Corps., as a way of more closely aligning their commercial goals as a Business for Good, and others are simply doing good because that's who they are as good people.

Broadly speaking you might call this approach ‘purposeful business’ or for the more detailed among us ‘for-profit and for-purposes’.

Regardless of which tag resonates most with your business, for those seeking to use business as a force for social good, there are two foundational questions each owner needs to get clear on.

  1. Do you lead with it as your point of difference; for example, 'we do this, therefore use our goods or services'
  2. Do you follow with it for example, 'Thank you for using our goods or services, by the way, you might like to know we're also a social enterprise'

The question that asks a bigger question

Whether to choose to do social good with your business is undoubtedly the question that divides.

If you can safely get past that initial conversation, the more unsettling question undoubtedly is ‘when do you start?’

The most common objection cited;

‘When my business is stable and successful, then I’ll do something purposeful.’

I do wonder if this is akin to saying, when my children become teenagers and are better able to understand, then I’ll start engaging them and teaching good life habits.

When was the last time you had great success at teaching your teenager a new habit? - just saying.

The best way to form a positive new behaviour is over time; the earlier the better (especially when you have teenagers).

Good leaders don't make bland statements

One of the opportunities I look forward to each year is to serve on a panel of judges for a number of professional services awards. There I get to see firsthand how different businesses take different approaches to doing good with their business.

When quizzed about their motivation and strategy the answers usually fall into two camps.

  • Some make bland statements of motive such as, 'Professionals have a responsibility to give back’ - but I'm never really sure if there's any additional useful thinking to support that well-worn proposition.
  • Others talk about serving from a trauma-informed experience, others from a response built upon a community of faith, while others more closely align their giving to themes, opportunities, and needs that resonate with their particular core business skill set or the owner's own personal goals and beliefs.

I'm still waiting to find someone who nails the question about small business philanthropy and motivations, and perhaps that's just the inherent necessary tension that creates the peal.

We all know what it's like to do the right thing for the wrong reasons

Let's be frank - giving back is nothing new.

Conspicuous wealth and conspicuous philanthropy have long been uneasy bedfellows and consumption-driven philanthropy has always existed alongside the ongoing tensions between motivations and doing good.

Today's external certification for purpose-driven business is the B Corporation movement where its business members compete, not to be the best in the world but the best for the world.

These same motivations are now splashing over into ethical investment conversations, often championed by millennials and activist shareholders set on directing where their superannuation funds are invested as a method to encourage renewable energy and other things good for the world.

Ask a customer

We asked a number of our customers two questions:

  1. How they felt about their existing business suppliers who were known to have a deliberate social outlet, and
  2. How they’d explain the differences between the business suppliers.

Interestingly, their responses about business giving fell into just one of 3 main replies.

  1. That’s what they do.
  2. That’s why they do it.
  3. That’s what I believe and who I am.

Don't miss the third answer ...

Below are the aggregated responses explaining how customers explained the differences.

  • I only use 'bank ABC because they support my children's local cricket club'.
  • 'It's what they do and I suspect that it's just part of their advertising budget. If they didn't have to, they wouldn't, I doubt they would still care about us. That's just what they do. And I suppose they have to be seen doing that.’
  • For my family and business insurance, we use financial adviser ABC because they believe everyone deserves a fair go and have a strong human rights and equality focus. That resonates with me and I believe in equality too and that's the freedom I want for my family. That's why they do that.
  • Investing my superannuation with company ABC is an ethical way of balancing looking after the community and the environment as well as looking after my future retirement savings. Yes there's a lot to learn about and tough decisions to make, but that's who I am and what I believe; it's important to me.

What's most interesting about the feedback above is the third customer response - where the brand has helped the customer to become the hero in the transaction story.

A good business doing good

The Oz Harvest Food Rescue service is a nationwide food collection business where supermarkets and restaurants can donate their close to end-of-life, excess or unwanted food to the greater community for distribution to those services providing food security to those in need.

Is this a convenient way for supermarkets to reduce their food waste costs and get end-of-shelf-life food out of the way?

Undoubtedly Yes.

  • Does this mean the supermarkets are seen doing good? I suppose so, Yes.
  • Does it matter what their motivation is? Not to those receiving the food, No.

The last word

When your brand goes to market and competes for the money and attention of the customer, in the end, the customer will decide, whether that's what you do, that's why you do it, and whether that's what they believe in too.

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