Michele Sarkisian, CEO and president at Atlanta-based P3 Advisors, began her session on building strategic social impact at the Incentive Research Foundation Invitational in Cancun, Mexico, with a quote from best-selling author Daniel Pink: "In turbulent times, people get serious about finding meaning.” Sarkisian said, “We are living in turbulent times, and people are definitely searching for meaning.”
She quoted a 2017 Cone Communications study on CSR that found that 70 percent of Americans believe companies have an obligation to improve social issues, 87 percent are more likely to purchase a product because a company advocates for a particular cause and two-thirds of consumers avoid products if a company is opposed to an issue they support. Finding meaning also matters for employees. The Boston Consulting Group in last year’s paper on Total Societal Impact suggested that there is now a triple bottom line for businesses—people, planet, and profits—and corporate leaders are beginning to look at the impact of business strategy on all three.
A quick poll during the session showed that participants definitely noticed companies that are concerned with social responsibilities and thought better of them. Audience members said they admired Toms shoes for its philanthropic work and Howard Schulze for closing down 8,000 Starbucks cafes to train staff about unconscious bias. Jane Larson of ITA Group said she admired Patagonia because “They are not about growth, they are about thriving.”
As an example of how CSR can attract consumers, Sarkisian mentioned the long line of customers at Argo Teas she saw on a recent trip through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. The company posts its mission statement about sustainable growing community programs at each location.
Other big corporate donors include Salesforce, which gives one percent of earnings, revenue, and employee time to helping nonprofits; Cisco for its award-winning education programs; and the Home Depot for its support for veterans and campus improvement grants for historically black colleges.
Corporate leaders are noticing and embracing this trend, and not just because it is helpful for employee satisfaction and marketing programs. Businesses are now held to standards for their own employees and practices, and also those of their supply chains and partners, so it is essential that they make sure every link in the chain is aligned with their corporate goals and not just out of fear of bad publicity. This year Nestlè and Hershey were sued because child and slave labor was used to pick cacao beans at the beginning of their supply chain.
Can You Affect Change?
Sarkisian said, “Yes!”
One of the most popular CSR areas in the meetings and hospitality profession is to focus on the 17 U.N. Sustainability Goals. Hilton recently unveiled a campaign called Travel with Purpose, aimed at reducing water usage and repurposing soap to achieve zero Hilton soap in landfills by 2030. There are also industry-wide programs to prevent human trafficking and reduce food and water waste.
Sarkisian pointed out that the hospitality and travel industry together comprise the largest employment sector in the world, and anything it supports makes an order of magnitude difference. She said, “We are in mature and emerging markets, we are people-intensive, and we have a huge and far-reaching customer and supply chain base.” Even something as seemingly small and easy as choosing not to book hotels unless they have signed the EcPat Code of Conduct to prevent child sex tourism will change the industry.
Her advice? Think about what you are passionate about and include activities that support that. Research your clients—perhaps they mention an organization they support on their social media programs—then find a way to support it during their programs. And don’t rule anything out. She said, “I took a group to Bali and it was the dirtiest place I’d ever been. Banana peels in temples and mess on the beach, so we organized a group to help.“ You will find that people always want to help, whether it is taking photos of hotel rooms for the TraffickCam app or donating shampoo and soap for the homeless.