Marketing leaders continue to grapple with what “social impact” really means, what kinds of things they should be doing and how to value the business impact of those activities. The always insightful Jay Wilson recently published a fantastic note Differentiate Your Brand on Social Impact (subscription required) that dives into this topic, and Jennifer Polk does a beautiful job adding perspective in this great post.

Businesses seem to have a hard time getting their arms around how to think about social impact. The approach to social impact is in many cases innate to the character of an organization and can just as often come off like it’s another item on a business operation checklist. Social impact, check.

At a human level, we seem to be pretty good at doing what comes naturally. Those individuals rescuing others from flooded homes, pulling people from earthquake rubble, helping hurricane victims or supporting important causes aren’t running a calculation of their “social impact.”  They are doing what their values tell them to do. There is no ROI calculation or thoughts about how it fits their brand narrative.

It might be helpful for companies to consider how your organization maps to how individuals approach making a social impact. Think about which profile is closest to your actual organizational DNA:

The Activists – These passionate people chain themselves to trees, ram whaling ships in polar oceans and stage protest marches. Social impact is a passion for this group and central to their very existence. Organizations that fit this profile are willing to take chances, put principle over profit and do things others would not be prepared to do in service of their cause.

Dedicated Advocates – People like this have a cause or a small number of causes they are dedicated to supporting. Not as bold or edgy as activists, but still highly committed, they take a more methodical and sustained approach to support. Organizations fitting this profile typically find causes that are important to the founders or well aligned with their business or audience and then dedicate sustained investment of resources.

Portfolio Philanthropy – This type of person supports a wide number of causes but at a relatively low level of personal commitment. In total, they may provide substantial support, often more financial than direct personal involvement. Organizations like this may do everything from supporting the local little league team to contributing to well-known national or international causes.

Pet projects – This type of individual has sporadic involvement with a small handful of causes. Similar to the dedicated advocates, their focus is tighter, but they differ in their overall level of sustained commitment to the cause. Organizations of this type are more opportunistic about their support and may step up around natural disasters, support of employees in need or other events or circumstances.

None of these profiles is better than another, any person or organization giving to others and supporting all the things that need to be done in the world is a good thing. There are soooo many worthy causes and organizations in need of support, and any of them can be woven effectively into your brand narrative and contribution to social impact. Doing something is always better than doing nothing so when in doubt, help someone. Social impact is driven by the values and character of individuals and brands. When thinking about the social impact this well-known quote from John Wooden is worth a moment:

“The true test of a man’s brand’s character is what he it does when no one is watching.”

― John Wooden

Social impact isn’t about brand narrative or ROI. It’s about understanding the character and values of your business and taking action on those values. What’s the business value of doing the right thing? You tell me.

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