It seems that respectable institutions like Harvard University and The New York Times have found their way to presenting what most of us have known for a while: profit-making and addressing social issues can and should go hand in hand. As a recent Fast Company article called Shared Value Capitalism: A Socially Responsible Way To Improve Quality And Retain Customers recounts, major companies (mainly high-tech ones) are aligning their business processes, products, and/or services in ways that benefit the company and society at the same time. This “new” form of capitalism, says columnist Steve Lohr, is “more sophisticated” because it considers “the ability to address societal ills [as] integral to profit maximization instead of treated outside [of] the profit model.” What shocking revelations! No, all sarcasm aside, I think it is a given to most of us on the level that the future of business is one in which the maximizations of profit, environment, and society are equally distributed across core business values and activities.
All of the examples from the article start with the company and move out into the community, but I have an example of how to start in the community and bring the value back to the company, which also is an answer to the question posed by the author of the article: “How can companies not in the everyday business of technology pursue shared value?”
I worked in the book publishing industry for five years, at the largest trade book publisher in the world. My employer was very charitable and employee volunteerism was encouraged, and this is how I got involved with a wonderful nonprofit called Everybody Wins!. This organization is based on the belief that children who love to read are more likely to read, which in turn helps them be more engaged and perform better in school, and to eventually have more success in life. The partnership between this nonprofit and a large publishing company is obviously a mutually beneficial one. Everybody Wins! relies on donations to stock its libraries with books for children to read. The publishing industry relies on children asking their parents to buy them books and growing up to be adults who read and, of course, buy books for themselves. By sharing stakeholders, products, time, and money with each other, the large for-profit and the small non-profit come together with a symbiosis that has positive social and economic impact. Now there’s some shared value!
I’ve written previously about how I believe Everybody Wins! needs to step up its Social Impact Assessment game. Maybe if they did, publishers would invest even more. Shared value such as this needs to be built into Social Impact Assessment. But, in my opinion, this example shows that shared value isn’t just about big companies bringing their products, services, technologies, and knowledge to society through the triple bottom line. Society has everything to offer for-profit organizations – people are the users of what companies create and distribute, and as with publishers and readers, companies need to take care of their customers, even their future ones. Eventually, I hope the Social Impact Assessment reports of Random House (it was obvious that that was the company, right?) and Everybody Wins! are intertwined, at least in some sections. Partnerships between organizations such as these are at the heart of at least one part of what Shared Value is supposed to accomplish: positive social impact. By the same reasoning, partnerships are integral to Social Impact Assessment. I’ll take a slight liberty with the final line from the Fast Company article: “Shared value is not just a series of empty words or a catchy phrase. Experience is already proving that when it is pursued the right way, [Everybody Wins!]”