Social impact can be defined in many ways, but ultimately all definitions share a few common elements — a net positive effect and one that addresses a social challenge in the community, enhancing the well-being of individuals and families. Today, our journey to social impact is even more pressing, and I want to make the case for how a company’s response to COVID-19 can enhance their journey and set themselves up for more authentic, robust and purposeful social impact.

Continued from Part 2 – The journey to social impact: Find balance in the tensions

I started this blog series when the job market was strong, corporate profits were growing and the stock market was climbing. At that time, I was writing this series as a challenge to the private sector, encouraging them to rethink their approach to social impact, to move beyond the status quo and to embrace the journey to achieving social impact.

So much has changed since then.

First off, I am writing this to you in my makeshift home office, with the concern and anxiety for the safety of family, friends, and colleagues still on my mind and a lingering sense of disappointment as each day passes and plans for the upcoming months unravel. Secondly, companies are adapting their employee engagement programs to build a new virtual community, and their philanthropic investments must adapt to the immediate needs of their nonprofit partners and communities they serve.

However, there are things that are still the same.

Social impact can be defined in many ways, but ultimately all definitions share a few common elements — a net positive effect and one that addresses a social challenge in the community, enhancing the well-being of individuals and families.

Today, our journey to social impact is even more pressing, and I want to make the case for how a company’s response to COVID-19 can enhance their journey and set themselves up for more authentic, robust and purposeful social impact. All journeys typically hit bumps in the road; this bump may make the journey all the more impactful.

Prioritize your people 

Part one of this blog series starts our journey with defining purpose and recognizing the power of your people. In the midst of COVID-19, we are hard-pressed to find any company not re-centering their attention around their employees, customers and other stakeholders. Caring for your employees is not only a business essential but also key to engagement. Whether that be taking steps to support a teleworking environment, adding safety precautions for essential workers or establishing an employee assistance program, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the workforce that is facing furloughs or layoffs. Companies in these dire economic circumstances that are prioritizing their employees will first exhaust all options, ensure decisions are carried out in a fair and equitable manner, and communicate any rehiring practices well. As health, family life and well-being take first priority in facing the COVID-19 pandemic, the voice of employees becomes elevated within the organization. This can have a lasting impact within departments, corporate policy and in how a company approaches social impact well into the future.

Embrace the journey and communicate

Communication, Communication, Communication. Without communication, the barriers imposed by COVID-19 would put a halt to all progress. Companies must communicate with employees how to adapt their work in response to this pandemic, whether that be teleworking, use of technology or putting new procedures in place to ensure essential workers are safe. This is a business essential. Overcommunicate and ensure all communications channels are clear and don’t contradict each other. In their COVID-19 tracker: Insights for a time of crisis, Porter Novelli says that when an employee learns of their company’s COVID-19 specific response, they feel proud and are more inspired and loyal. They are also more likely to recommend their employer and want to get involved. The same was found with the general population, 71% of Americans feel better about a company that publicly announces what they are doing. But the fact is, COVID-19 is an evolving crisis. Our responses at each point – from when the outbreak started in China to when it spread in the U.S., and from its classification as a pandemic to discussing what the post COVID-19 workforce might be – are likely vastly different. This situation has required companies to bring all stakeholders along with them on their journey. This kind of authenticity and transparency in how a company addresses any social challenge is exactly what is needed moving forward.

Purpose drives collaboration

So where do we go from here? Prior to COVID-19, my original plan for part 3 of this series was supposed to be all about how cross-sector collaboration is essential for social impact. It is even more true today. If leadership is committed to creating social impact, then the egos must come down. No one entity will solve a complex social challenge alone. It is not the case for COVID-19 and not the case for many societal challenges that affect the pool of future talent, the well-being of staff and global supply chains.

Collaboration requires strong purpose. During this crisis, companies with a strong purpose adapted their work with less challenges, from using 3D printers to address equipment shortages, to pouring data and scientists into accelerating a therapeutic or vaccine to stop the spread of COVID-19. It occurs to me that many of the lessons learned by companies along their social impact journey are practices that nonprofits have refined over the years. Nonprofits, by name and legality, are in the business of making a social impact; the “profit” has always been achieving their “purpose.”

Often at the forefront of social change, nonprofits work with passionate advocates and employees, harnessing their power to effect even greater impact that extends beyond their programs to create change within governments and across sectors. You see this today in the way that nonprofits are addressing their service delivery and adapting to respond to current needs. Will fighting COVID-19 offer a path forward for companies to recognize the value of collaboration?

There are many ways right now that companies can support their nonprofit partners through greater collaboration. The first is checking in with current partners and grantees. Right now nonprofits are adapting the way they can do their work, just like the corporate sector. Listen to their needs and what challenges they currently face. Consider lifting grant restrictions so your partners can put the money where it is needed most. The second is working with partners to see how your company can help meet outcomes in our new current working environment and communities, whether that’s through product, people or skill set. Regardless of our current context, this approach to collaboration is a part of the journey to greater social impact.

Finding strength

Over the past 20 years, corporate social responsibility has endured 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis. Companies have responded with a pattern of shrinking their investments into programs centered on social impact and sustainability, then responding with growth not long after. The business case around social impact relies on people metrics, like recruitment and retention; it relies on impact, measuring true sustainable change; and it relies on purpose.

Budgets may be significantly cut, timelines delayed and strategic philanthropic priorities shifted; however, it is imperative to have someone at the decision-making table who will approach COVID-19 response with a lens toward social impact. Through this response, I believe that companies will come out of this with an even stronger roadmap for how to approach philanthropic investment and employee engagement that is people-centered, full of purpose and embraces collaboration to address any social challenge we face.

We are prepared to support you in this journey, to build a business case for your CSR program and to ensure your employee engagement program is effective, compelling and aligned with your employees’ interests. I look forward to the day when I can join my colleagues back in the office and to meet with partners and clients in person. But in the meantime we will continue on our journey to social impact and to inspire greater giving from home, as it is more important than ever!