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Embracing social purpose:  why community works for business

By Sabrina El-Chibini, Founding CEO, The Collaboration Vector Inc. 


I was asked to help two independent hospitals work more closely together for the benefit of their common patients.  


While patients would typically transition from one of these hospitals to the other, their experience wasn’t smooth and timely.   


Over the two years that I managed that project, I learned that succeeding in improving patient care had everything to do with engaging people

"When people at every level and across these separate entities felt engaged

in a common social mission of improving care, magic happened." 

When I later translated these learnings to the private sector, the same held true.  For example, when Sealand Americas, a container logistics company, engaged with employees in a deeper sense to embrace social purpose, 50% of its workforce chose to become involved by as early as the second year of the program.  

While further developing this notion in the public, private, non-profit sectors and in mandates with the United Nations Development Programme, it became clear that some of the greatest opportunities for developing people, growing, and innovating would be catalyzed in the intersection between business and society. 

For the business sector specifically, deeply engaging with employees and external stakeholders around a common social mission could very possibly hold the key to the kingdoms companies are striving to build:  finding purpose, engaging and developing employees who are presenting a whole new set of demands, retaining top talent, building great cultures and transforming stakeholder perceptions.

I founded The Collaboration Vector Inc. in 2011 with a mission of supporting business in tapping into these opportunities.  A natural starting point was the relationship between business and the non-profit sector. 


"While companies had been “giving” to non-profits for decades, many were still unsure about

whom to partner with, how much to invest and what their volunteer program should look like. 


They weren't sure if their investment had the greatest possible return for society. 

They were wondering what the balance between “work” and “community” life should be."

I hope to provoke thought among visionary business leaders about a different approach to corporate community investment that we have now proven maximizes business and social return on investment.  It leads each company naturally to its unique “sweet spot” for community investment.  Here is the story and the results we measured.   

What is the approach?

Most companies’ community investment efforts involve transactional funding or sporadic team activities.  This leaves business deciding, year after year, what to do and where to invest.  It locks business in the short-term, with little opportunity to link societal and business outcomes to investment.  When a company engages more deeply with employees and non-profits, over the long-term, to generate innovative solutions to societal challenges, its people, its business, and its communities transform.

The Collaboration Vector Inc.

From Transactional to TransformativeTM

TCI framework - Eng - opt.jpg

Over years spent in developing this framework, mapping best practices at every stage, and collecting evidence on its effectiveness in the real-world business setting, we uncovered the power of social purpose in driving business performance.  

When employees are nurtured to lead efforts with non-profit partners in a model where volunteering is goal-directed, they develop naturally, as do community members.  In our recent study of the business and social impact of a customer service training by employee volunteers on disenfranchised youth, we collected data on the value of this deeper engagement.  Over the four-month period after the training, young participants overwhelmingly reported that the training had helped them get job interviews, feel more confident during the interview process, get job offers, secure jobs and start new businesses. 


"Every $US1 invested was associated with an increase of $4.97

in household income for participating youth." 

"Employees reported working more effectively as a team as a result of planning and providing the training, and felt the training had a positive impact on their own customer service performance and their understanding of how to help their team

deliver excellent customer service." 


We have now collected evidence that links the approach to an improved ability to attract, develop and retain top talent, foster effective teamwork and collaboration, develop soft and technical skills.  We consistently measured that employees drawn to becoming involved are about 12% more engaged as compared with company mean scores. 


"This begs the question, does purpose have to come from inside company walls?"


Considering employee engagement among the North American workforce hovers in the range of 34% with little change over the past decade, despite sizeable investment, there has never been a better time for companies to consider new approaches to help people realize their potential.  

“I can lead!  I have this ability. 

I can bring people together to do what is needed.”

Why does it work?

By mapping our approach against Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid, one of our talented young researchers, Dmitri Kharitidi, shed light on the two-fold mechanism by which it is working.    On one hand, it fills hierarchical needs that deter complex reasons for disengagement, such as “my accomplishments aren’t recognized” or “my ideas aren’t heard”.    

On the flip side, it fosters engagement by filling higher needs such as “the ability to do what I do best” and “the feeling of having made a valuable contribution”.   An employee who is contributing on a long-term basis and involved in working towards a common goal and a desired outcome feels a sense of belonging, importance, and self-actualization.  The approach acts as a driver to achieve the highest level of employee engagement.  


Even the niche of top performing employees who may not be primarily socially driven embrace involvement around a social mission as a means of finding opportunities to lead, innovate, be heard and recognized. 

As companies become more externally focussed through collaborations and partnerships, those that remain internally centered may find themselves in Maslow’s lower stages of survival and security.  They can leverage only company-generated opportunities when seeking purpose, which may result in relatively lower levels of employee engagement and a competitive disadvantage.   


Transforming stakeholder perceptions

Evidence is mounting rapidly that links a strong relationship between business performance and the extent to which a company is socially and environmentally responsible.  While being socially responsible is known to drive multiple favorable employee indicators, it is also fostering consumer, customer, investor, and citizen engagement.  Social transformation and deep engagement drive favorable stakeholder perceptions as stakeholders naturally and readily relate to social missions.   


Considerations for implementation

Building a community program that delivers innovative solutions to societal challenges requires a multi-faceted and non-traditional set of skills and commitment. Critical to its success is the ability to foster collaboration at a grand scale and design winning conditions for each actor/team in a multi-sector setting and across company divisions.  When well implemented, business value begins to be generated immediately in the design process and continues through to measuring and effecting social change.


While seemingly daunting, transformation is surprisingly efficient and cost-effective.  Our model mimics the ebbs and flows of business operations, allowing leaders and employees to progress at a comfortable and manageable pace.  Evidence-based approaches such as this enable business to make better-informed investment decisions, ensure efficient use of scarce resources, and provide continuous opportunities for insightful dialogue with employees and other stakeholders.

Investing in building a team with such expertise may run beyond a traditional business operation, particularly for small- and mid-sized businesses.  Working with a design and implementation partner may make financial sense as a means of fast-tracking knowledge acquisition, tapping into known critical success factors, and mitigating known risks.  In the case where a company with an established team is planning to transform its program, a partner can fill expertise gaps such as strategy and design of long-term partnerships and/or social and business impact evaluation.

Whereas the pitfall of transactional community programs is the lack of opportunity to focus and link societal and business outcomes to the investment, a transformational one risks ineffective execution that may end up retracting into a transactional program.  On the other hand, the value of great design and implementation is exponential. 

For more information, please contact me at The Collaboration Vector Inc.


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