Money Isn’t Everything: An Alternative Approach to Social Impact


Times of crisis are known to accelerate social change, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. Since we hunkered down in our home offices and switched in-person get-togethers for Zoom catch-ups, it feels like the world has undergone a decade’s worth of change in mere months. In the midst of it all, social justice movements have taken center stage worldwide. As a result, people have opened their hearts, minds, and wallets to support good causes — but what is the role of corporations in this endeavor?

Lump-sum donations used to be the method of choice for companies looking to flex their philanthropic muscles, but an increasingly discerning consumer is starting to challenge this type of charitable act. Giants like AT&T and Amazon have been called out for their misleading cause-driven campaigns that don’t align with what goes on behind the scenes.

For many, these old-school marketing strategies have become synonymous with inauthenticity, but can change happen without corporate wealth? When it comes to social impact, the question of money is never not on the table, but thankfully there’s a way that businesses and individuals can contribute to good causes without breaking the bank.

Every little thing counts

Just this year, we have seen numerous corporations adopt disruptive approaches to bring about social change, prioritizing effective strategy over expensive marketing campaigns. From companies pausing their advertising on Facebook, to Nascar and the NBA taking swift action to oppose racism, businesses are paying attention to the social challenges faced by their audiences, and incorporating these concerns into their public personas. For these companies, influence, leverage, and having a large platform did more to foster change than money ever could.

We can’t be sure if this developing trend in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) comes from a place of genuine empathy, public pressure, or the strive for greater revenue, but what can be said is that these actions have had real-world impact.

Leveling the playing field

Different organizations and individuals have hugely varying access to capital, but one of the great things that happens when you take money out of the equation is that a number of other tools for social change begin to emerge. Therefore we shouldn’t focus on the amount of money given when measuring social impact but must instead look at how people maximize their resources — it’s all about potential. This outlook fosters a more inclusive ‘do what you can’ mentality, which ultimately allows more people to have a seat at the table when seeking progress.

This idea is well exemplified by the case of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Despite creating the planet’s fifth most visited website, Wales’ salary only just breaks six figures, and this is because instead of turning Wikipedia into a commercial enterprise, he donated it to the Wikimedia Foundation following the belief that enriching the mind is more important than profits. Now, Wikipedia is one of the most valuable resources for information on the internet thanks to its inclusive format and funding system that is uncompromised by corporate interests. In founding Wikipedia, Wales harnessed the web as a force for good, and in foregoing a profit-driven model, the entrepreneur managed to achieve far more than many of his billionaire peers ever have.

A different approach to social impact: Providing each other with basic necessities

In a globalized world, shared values and shared needs are often more unifying than financial capital. In some countries, people don’t have access to traditional banking or currency systems, meaning the way we place value on goods and services is entirely different.

That’s not to say we don’t need money in our daily lives. Of course, without money, how would we pay for rent, gas, electricity, and other utilities? Yet all of us, from individuals to large enterprises, have things we don’t need and need things we don’t have, and this could be the critical difference to make an impact in someone’s life.

In the US, pandemic-induced shortages and lack of cash have encouraged people to embrace bartering. These citizens have traded perishable food for laundry soap, book lights for hand sanitizer, canned goods for cleaning supplies, all while enjoying the social opportunities that come with this system. Similarly, in Hawaii, residents have turned to this alternative economic model to survive during these trying times. People are planting gardens, fishing, hunting, buying produce on Facebook marketplace, and trading their acquired goods to meet their basic needs. Bartering is also on the rise in the UK, where people have traded goods as well as skills and services like professional filming and webinars.

Marketing meets mission

In a Harvard Business Review article titled Marketing Meets Mission, Myriam Sidibe details the ways in which corporations have adapted to bring about social change. Many of the marketing case studies she cites achieved their success more through effective strategy and allegiances than expensive branding packages. From Carling Black Label helping to stop violence against women in South Africa, to Knorr battling iron-deficiency in Nigeria, Sidibe highlights the importance of involving many players in achieving impact.

She offers five actionable steps for those trying to achieve social change through enterprise. In unison, they form a powerful tried and tested framework that organizations can follow to generate tangible impact.

First, there’s the need to define a cause and inspire behavioral change. The second step is winning internal support. After all, a passionate team will knock down walls to solve problems and find creative ways to succeed. Third, organizations should measure the performance of their strategies continuously in order not to lose focus. The fourth tip revolves around securing partnerships, allowing brands to leverage additional skills, expertise, resources, and networks. And finally, Sidibe stresses that the efforts should always prioritize sustainable, systemic change.

The new face of Corporate Social Responsibility that has emerged during the pandemic marks a milestone in how companies confront social issues, showing that societal change isn’t an ambition reserved only for the super-rich. The resurgence of bartering, and other forms of non-financial resourcefulness, denote a powerful leveling of individuals and wealthy businesses when it comes to social power. These strategies allow organizations to better visualize the positive change they want to achieve and generate benefits for themselves and their communities alike.

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