What A Difference 20 Years Makes In Corporate Social Impact

Twenty years ago this spring, an exercise in social entrepreneurship called the Cause Marketing Forum conference was held in Manhattan. Amazingly for a first time venture, more than 200 people from across America made it to that gathering driven by allegiance to what was then a considered a pretty out there idea: companies could do well by doing good.

That first outing was haunted by its share of rookie mistakes — AV disasters in particular were rampant. But in spite of the glitches, the enthusiasm of the participants, the way they thanked the organizers for giving them an outlet for meeting others who shared their passion for mixing cause and commerce, was incredible.

In the intervening years, so much has changed — largely for the better — for those working to create positive, sustainable corporate social impact. One example: “cause marketing” as a term has so fallen out of favor because of its association with short-term, highly promotional programming, that the group rebranded five years ago to Engage for Good.

What was once considered a tangential, even quaint aspect of running a business is now a “center of the plate” aspect of management. CSR, ESG, social impact investing, purpose, corporate citizenship, strategic corporate philanthropy, B Corps, social entrepreneurship, multi-stakeholder management and many more terms related to balancing a company’s social and financial impact are regularly uttered by C-suite occupants.

Corporate social impact is not a one-size-fits-all field. There is not one right way that everyone must step in line to follow. How companies and cause groups approach the topic is extremely varied, but any group that does not thoughtfully approach it does so at its peril.


This diversity is illustrated by the two organizations that will be presented with Golden Halo Awards at the Engage for Good conference this May: Ace Hardware and The Trevor Project. (The Golden Halo recognizes the honoree’s body of work and is EFG’s highest accolade.)

Ace Hardware has been a leader in applying high-tech and high-touch strategies to increase point-of-sale fundraising for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. If Ace had simply stuck to the old fashion “paper-icon-hung-by-the register” techniques of POS fundraising they would never have been able to contribute more than $150 million to CMNH over the years.

The Trevor Project has employed a holistic model to co-create corporate alliances yielding revenue and capabilities that have dramatically expanded its ability to serve LGBTQ youth with crisis intervention and suicide prevention services. Twenty years ago corporations would only publicly align themselves with middle-of-the road noncontroversial issues like fighting hunger and disease. It’s a huge step to see so many, so strongly working with Trevor to support LGBTQ youth around mental health issues.

Figuring out how to better balance social and financial imperatives continues to be a work in progress, but the progress made over the last 20 years provides fuel for optimism that we are moving in the right direction.

The Tycoon Herald