What Do 19th Century Quakers and Millennials of Today Have in Common?

Brand Purpose has become a buzz phrase in our day, somehow associated with Millennials and linked to Digital and associated with increased profits and Brand power.

Last week I shared my own growing skepticism and challenged the “conventional wisdom” at play.

I leave it to you to form your own opinion but do hope you will cogitate a bit on both Amazon and United Airlines, and as you do so, not kowtow too quickly to the knee-jerkers who accept current Brand Purpose thinking as dogma.

As I thought about the topic this week, I did some research and found that way before Millennials and Digital, Quaker-owned businesses in the 18th and 19th century were founded on a set of ideals, often called by historians Quaker Capitalism or Quakernomics, models of Brand Purpose that would be envied today.

To be clear, before the knee-jerkers attack, the tension inherent in their model, between the need to make profit and the Quaker ethical and moral code, manifested itself over generations and the balance between paternalism and control was often crossed. Yet, all in all, there is much to learn from their pioneering approach around building trust with customers that begins with a company’s internal practices.

To me, the most important lesson shared in the article was the following:

“The moral mission needs to be led by CEOs at the top, rather than Corporate Social Responsibility reps in the middle.”

And it is that message, not a seasonal promotion or a jump on the bandwagon of the latest cultural wave, that actually drives long-term value and true purpose.

Pepsi clearly got the message and, despite a recent stumble, seems to be right in line with the old Quaker philosophy.

Fast Company shared “How PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi Is Steering the Company Toward A Purpose-Driven Future”:

PepsiCo recently revealed a new global corporate agenda that emphasizes health and social accountability. That might seem like a stretch for a company best known for hawking junk food, but chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi and chief scientist Mehmood Khan say they’re committed to making their products healthier, empowering their employees, and encouraging environmental responsibility.

I had the honor of serving on a New York City commission during the 12 years that Mike Bloomberg was mayor of New York City. The Cultural Affairs Department was a city commission with a board of directors because it actually allocates funds to nonprofits across the city. Everything, from the smallest ethnic dance troupe in a particular neighborhood to a big name museum to a public art display, is a recipient of funding and partnership expertise.

Talk about purposeful brands!

But my story is really about Mayor Mike, as he was known. On more than one occasion I heard him say that he was planning to give all his money away to causes where he could make a difference…in fact, he said he wanted the check to the undertaker to bounce as there would be nothing left in his bank account.

Bloomberg was not alone in that thinking.

Seven years ago, in 2010, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates sent a strong message to the world by asking billionaires to give away their wealth:

Investor Warren Buffett and Microsoft founder Bill Gates announced on Wednesday that they are asking hundreds of billionaire Americans to give away at least 50 percent of their wealth to charity.

They have named the campaign the Giving Pledge and are asking those who commit to giving away at least half their fortune during their lifetime or after their death to publicly state their intention with a letter explaining their decision.

“At the latest, the proceeds from all of my Berkshire shares will be expended for philanthropic purposes by 10 years after my estate is settled. Nothing will go to endowments; I want the money spent on current needs,” Buffett wrote.

A few years later the list had expanded with Apple CEO Tim Cook’s pledge to give away all his wealth:

“You want to be the pebble in the pond that creates the ripple for change,” the CEO explained. To this end, once he has paid for his nephew’s college education, he intends to give away his fortune to philanthropic issues….

By making this promise, Cook follows in the footsteps of other high-profile philanthropists. In 2010, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and investor Warren Buffet launched the “Giving Pledge” — an appeal for American billionaires to give away at least 50% of their wealth to charity. Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, business magnate Michael Bloomberg, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar have all signed up.

Tim Cook has previously spoken about his affection for his nephew and his sense of social responsibility. “I have a nephew that I dearly love that’s 10, and when I look at him, and when I think of leaving a world that’s not as good as when I entered it, there’s no bigger sin than that,” the CEO told an audience at New York City’s Climate Week in September 2014.

And then again:

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is bullish on philanthropy. His company’s foundation co-founded the Pledge 1% in December 2014. The NGO encourages companies to pledge 1% of employee time, equity, product or profit to improve communities around the world.

Benioff is well-known as a philanthropist with his personal wealth as well: he and his wife have signed the Giving Pledge, an effort started by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to get the extremely wealthy to give away more than half of their wealth during their lifetime or in their wills.

During Benioff’s keynote address at the 2016 Intel Capital Global Summit in San Diego this week, he was asked about how he’s able to attract millennials, especially given the competition from sexy- sounding startups. The millennial generation, though often stereotyped as entitled and selfie-obsessed, is actually quite generous — 85% gave charitably in 2014 and 70% volunteered their time in 2014, according to the National Philanthropic Trust.

Benioff said young professionals find Salesforce an appealing place to work precisely because philanthropy is baked into the company’s culture. He said that he’s not only driven to provide efficient, consumer-focused technology but he’s also “trying to have a big impact on the world and the way that other companies are doing business.”

I am as cynical as you are. And, I know, that no company is perfect in its pursuit of true purpose as, in fact, true purpose for any publicly traded company is revenue growth and profit or else it will never be able to fulfill anything more. And even companies who believe that their pursuit of good leads them to more profit know that if they fail to deliver the profit part, unforgiving markets will ultimately limit their ability to drive purpose first.

And then there is Amazon…no profit/no purpose and — as of two months ago, “At last, Jeff Bezos Offers a Hint of his Philanthropic Plans”:

On Thursday, after questions from The New York Times about the level of his giving, Mr. Bezos posted on Twitter a “request for ideas” for philanthropy. “I’m thinking about a philanthropy strategy that is the opposite of how I mostly spend my time — working on the long term,” he wrote. “For philanthropy, I find I’m drawn to the other end of the spectrum: the right now.”

Citing a homeless program in Seattle, Amazon’s hometown, that the company is working with, he said he was seeking to help people “at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact,” adding, “If you have any ideas, just reply to this tweet…”

The message was classic Bezos — challenging conventional wisdom, seeking the wisdom of the market and highlighting his various businesses. Yet it failed to answer a question that is likely to follow him more often if and when he becomes the richest man: What are his plans to give away some or all of his wealth?…

He is the only one of the top five billionaires in America who has not signed the Giving Pledge, the promise created by Mr. Gates and Warren Buffett for the superrich to give away at least half of their wealth.

Yet Amazon is one of the most successful companies in the history of the world held to no profit standard other than personal.

What does it all mean?

Perhaps this company has the answer.

According to Forbes, GoFundMe Is Changing The Way People Give To Causes Big And Small:

GoFundMe is not a philanthropy; it is an increasingly valuable for-profit business prominent on FORBES’ 2016 list of next billion-dollar startups. After achieving a reported valuation of $600 million in a July 2015 venture capital deal, it hit a growth spurt. In its first five years before the deal it channeled $1 billion in donations. Then it took just nine months to hit the second billion and only seven months to move a third billion in donations. For 2016 GoFundMe is projecting revenue of $100 million and an operating profit margin of more than 20%. GoFundMe is more than twice the size of the world’s next-largest crowdfunding site, Kickstarter, which focuses on artistic projects and new products. Like GoFundMe, Kickstarter takes 5% of the money it raises, though it doesn’t collect if campaigns don’t reach their goals. GoFundMe collects no matter what. It also imposes a 2.9% credit card processing fee plus 30 cents per donation.

GoFundMe’s brass are unapologetic capitalists who see the profit motive as perfectly aligning with the company’s objective: getting more people to give more money more efficiently to a vast array of “personal causes.” Because GoFundMe’s profits directly correlate with how much money it can persuade others to give away, the business is highly incentivized to increase the total amount people donate to others. The one million fundraisers pumping away on the site run the gamut from the Cure Sanfilippo Foundation to disaster relief for victims of the August Baton Rouge floods (6,400 GoFundMe campaigns have raised $11.2 million) to a couple who want help paying for their Prague honeymoon.

On one hand, it flies in the face of what we seem to be saying about Millennials and giving, but on the other, maybe it doesn’t.

And then of course there are the CEOs who also put their companies on the firing line trying to make a difference in important ways.

For example, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg:

In one very heartfelt swoop, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg has raised the bar on a very important employment benefit most people hope they’ll never use: paid bereavement leave ― the time off you need to recover from the loss of a loved one.

The tech giant will now provide 20 days of paid bereavement leave, double the amount previously given.

Sandberg knows from whence she speaks. She went back to work 10 days after her husband, Dave Goldberg, died in 2015.

“This is personal for me,” Sandberg said when making the announcement at the Makers conference, a women’s leadership event sponsored by AOL, the parent company of The Huffington Post. “I lost my husband very suddenly. Facebook provided leave and flexibility, and now we’re doing more.”

Facebook employees will also be able to take off three additional days if they need to take care of family member with a short-term illness, and six weeks if they need to provide longer-term care for ailing family members.

And in reaction to recent political legislation:

L.L. Bean CEO offers help to employees affected by Trump’s travel ban

Duck boot purveyor L.L. Bean — where Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to shop in response to boycotts targeting a pro-Trump Bean family member — is now quietly pushing back against the president’s travel ban.

In an internal memo sent to employees on Feb. 2 and obtained by POLITICO, L.L. Bean CEO Stephen Smith offered support to employees who may be affected by Trump’s executive order blocking entry to the U.S. for visa holders from seven majority-Muslim countries.

Airbnb’s CEO made his own claim:

In the midst of chaos caused by President Donald Trump’s executive order, which stranded refugees, students and green card holders in American airports, Airbnb is offering housing to those affected….

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky is one of many tech executives who spoke out yesterday against Trump’s refugee ban. But Chesky took his remarks one step further last night, offering housing to refugees and others impacted by the order. “Airbnb is providing free housing to refugees and anyone not allowed in the US,” he tweeted. “Stay tuned for more, contact me if urgent need for housing.”

And Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz promised to hire 10,000 refugees:

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order barring immigrants from seven predominately Muslim countries, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz vowed to hire 10,000 refugees globally.

“We will neither stand by, nor stand silent, as the uncertainty around the new administration’s actions grows with each passing day,” Schultz said in a message to employees posted on the company’s website on Sunday.

“There are more than 65 million citizens of the world recognized as refugees by the United Nations, and we are developing plans to hire 10,000 of them over five years in the 75 countries around the world where Starbucks does business.”

Schultz said the effort would begin in the U.S., focusing hiring efforts initially on people who served with U.S. troops as interpreters and support personnel.

Only time will tell if these big promises amount to more than some good PR, but my sense is that if nothing else, the fact that the “moral mission” is being led by the CEOs changes the paradigm of activation and turns a vision into a mission.

I think it’s so easy for cynicism to rule the day in our very overcomplicated and getting more so world.

Maybe we look too deeply for Brand Purpose because we think we should and then judge those who show it harshly if we deem it inauthentic and ignore it when companies who serve our own purpose with price and convenience don’t.

Perhaps, allow me to posit, it’s no more complicated than this:

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” Dalai Lama

Now…imagine if we all took this to heart…

What do you think?

 

 

 

 

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