This article was originally shared in The Hill’s Changing America.
Post-pandemic, businesses should not just put "purpose" at the center of their mission; rather, the future of how they work should be rooted in accountability.
Accountability eventually comes for everyone. Yet this age-old truth is a newly urgent reality for all our society’s leaders. As we begin to emerge from the worst phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is incumbent on all sectors of society to take accountability for delivering tangible action to redress major social, racial, and economic injustices that the pandemic has both made more visible and exacerbated. With the federal government recently passing a $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, business leaders now have a similar opportunity to demonstrate leadership through comprehensive environmental, social, and governance programs and brand-purpose partnerships.
Following decades of unbridled growth at the top and uneven progress for the middle class and the working poor, new demands for economic justice are gaining ground not only in the public square, but in the corporate sphere as well. After generations of America failing to fully live up to its founding ideals that all are “created equal” — a fact that has only become starker as the pandemic disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities, and as Asian Americans experience racist attacks at alarming levels — new movements for racial, gender, and social justice are gaining support not just in the streets, but in boardrooms, Zoom “rooms”, and Slack workspaces across the country
These multi-layered calls for an equitable society are ignored by leaders at their own peril. Indeed, accountability is the next great wave of disruption, akin to the transformation from analog to digital that has fundamentally remade the business landscape. Those leaders that get out front and deliver tangible progress on core equity issues can similarly seize a generational opportunity in their industries and their communities. Those who fail to lead will see themselves and their businesses swept aside by the tide of change.
The imperative for change is coming from many directions: from employees who are demanding equal and fair access to opportunities; from consumers who are using their dollars to support their values; from communities that have been marginalized for far too long; and from leaders who want to deliver impact on society’s most important issues.
Over the last decade, Corporate Social Responsibility has gained increasing traction in companies large and small. New programs and commitments are regularly announced by companies on combating climate change and advancing environmental sustainability, promoting racial equity and justice in their hiring and contracting, and promoting gender parity in their workforces.
At the same time, corporate accountability and impact have moved beyond showcase CSR programs to encompass a full range of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues.
While CSR programs remain critical, ESG is focused on ensuring accountability, including through comprehensive metrics, across a business’ full range of activities. Effective ESG requires coordination and ambition from all leaders across an organization — from finance and investor relations to operations to Human Resources — to advance the company’s social mission. ESG, similarly, encourages companies to partner with other leaders in their industry and across sectors, particularly with civil society and marginalized communities, to deliver progress.
The type of comprehensive accountability and evaluation required for ESG also allows companies to build authentic initiatives that live up to their brand’s values and core strengths in delivering impact. There are many different models of brand-purpose partnerships, but effective partnerships require an authentic connection to larger societal issues and a sincere commitment to co-create programs and deliver tangible results together both inside an organization and with frontline communities.
Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the urgency for CSR, ESG, and brand-purpose partnerships to help address long-standing injustices. The pandemic has had a devastating impact on all American communities, but particularly on already marginalized sectors of the population, including black and brown communities, women, the elderly, and children.
This type of society-wide catastrophe requires an all-hands-on-deck approach to “build back better” and more equitably from the pandemic. Corporate partners — working together with governments, NGOs, and community activists — have the chance to help reverse these negative trends and ensure that we build back sustainably and equitably from the pandemic. Post-pandemic, businesses should not just put ‘purpose’ at the center of their mission; rather, the future of how they work should be rooted in accountability. Business leaders must now be evaluated by their ability to demonstrate how doing the right things for people are not just good for business, but good for addressing imminent vulnerability.
With purpose at the center of business, and working together across all factions of society, we can deliver fundamental change that redresses these generational challenges. Even as consumers continue to hold companies responsible for their actions (or lack of them), “business” is still the only American institution that still maintains the trust of its people.
Yet at the end of the day, companies don’t make decisions, people do. As we’ve learned yet again through this pandemic, people are inherently collaborative, and we, as leaders, owe it to our society to hold ourselves, our businesses, and each other accountable for our actions. As leaders, we have accountability to all stakeholders in our society, our nation's children foremost among them. With American businesses embracing accountability, our future can be secured for many generations to come.
Alison Moore is the CEO of Comic Relief US, the organization behind the Red Nose Day campaign to end child poverty. Red Nose Day aims to end child poverty by addressing both the immediate needs coming out of the pandemic and systemic issues of equity, education, and healthcare.
Ian Schafer is the Co-founder and CEO of Kindred, an organization bringing leaders together to collaborate in actionable coalitions and to learn how to wield accountability as a force for systemic change.