In San Francisco, expert panelists (from left) Kevin McAndrew, Christine Lopez, Brittany Hill, Paul Musser, Kausik Rajgopal and moderator Mary Huss (Photos by Daniel Beck)

Most businesses can’t focus only on making money these days. Consumers and employees expect more of them, including a social cause to support. But finding one that’s worthy and relevant to a corporation’s business can be a complicated process, one that balances passion with logic.

To arrive at the right intersection of a brand’s identity and society’s needs, companies should seek guidance from their consumers, employees, and prospective nonprofit partners, according to a panel of experts at the From Day One conference April 9 in San Francisco, moderated by Mary Huss, president and publisher of the San Francisco Business Times and the Silicon Valley Business Journal.

“Our approach to finding that authenticity, that transparency, is starting with your people. Figure out what your people care about, figure out what resonates with them, what organizations they already are engaged with. Figure out what consumers care about,” said Brittany Hill, CEO and co-founder of Catalist, a matchmaking platform that connects companies with causes and partnerships.

“It has to be linked to the core of the business but also something that’s passionate for the employees,” said Kevin McAndrew, the senior director of social innovation partnerships for Save the Children. “It has to be something that people can get behind and understand, both on the consumer side and on the employee side, so it has longevity.”

Health-care giant McKesson found a cause by looking at what some of its employees and patients deal with each day: cancer care. According to Christine Lopez, vice president of corporate citizenship and president of the McKesson Foundation, choosing to stand behind cancer care was an “authentic” choice for the company.

Once McKesson chose its cause, the next step was figuring out how the company should focus its efforts. Lopez explained that through a listening tour, in which company representatives spoke with oncologists, nurses, and social workers, the company discovered several opportunities.

One of them was to provide cancer-care packages called Giving Comfort, which contain handcrafted items made by McKesson volunteers. Not only do such gestures provide emotional support for the patients, but they create a stronger bond between the company and its employees.

If the employees feel that they are part of a company that is making a difference, retention increases, which in turn helps McKesson too. “We have a model that says ‘It’s not just a package, it’s a patient,’” Lopez said. “When employees start to see the difference, the engagement levels really rise.”

"I truly believe that social impact, infusing a cause into your brand, is a marathon, not a sprint," said panelist Hill

For Mastercard, identifying the right purpose for the company was a bit more pragmatic. Paul Musser, a senior vice president who leads the company’s humanitarian and economic-development efforts, pointed out that the company’s business is about facilitating financial transactions. And one way to do that is to deploy Mastercard’s infrastructure in regions of the world where economic development is lagging or natural disasters have struck.

“In our case, the company has made a significant set of investments around inclusive growth because, quite frankly, communities that are not growing inclusively don’t drive transactions,” said Musser. “So if all the wealth happens to sit in the 1% of the population, you don’t make as much money. That sounds mercenary, but it is clear.”

When it comes to humanitarian aid, supplies, including food, are important in the short run, but over time what these communities need is economic recovery, according to Musser. That’s when Mastercard steps in to provide a pipeline for financial assistance. “Let’s give cash instead of a bag of rice,” he said.

While charitable giving can be helpful in the right situations, the panelists emphasized that companies can have more social impact if they work with the right partners and collaborators.

“The philanthropy and the grants still have a role to play, but increasingly what we see is that the way to approach this is very multifaceted,” said McAndrew. “Think about your brand and your consumers, think about the communities where you operate. And then who are the partners that you need to have to enable all of those things? Because you’re probably not going to be able to go it alone.”

Companies have come to realize that finding a cause means more than picking from a list of societal needs and forcing one to mold with the company’s brand. It requires introspection.

McKinsey & Co., the global management-consulting firm, had to discover what gender inclusivity meant within its own corporation before advising other businesses on the issue. Kausik Rajgopal, managing partner for the firm’s western U.S. region, said that in 2013, the firm found that its incoming recruiting class was only 22% female.

“When we started our gender-diversity research, we tested it with a few clients, and the thing we got from clients was ‘You better look in the mirror before you start going out and doing research on gender diversity.’ That actually led us to a pretty soul-searching and internal conversation about what were the sources of the challenges that we were having,” Rajgopal said, including such factors as unconscious bias.

Having done its homework, McKinsey & Co. now champions gender diversity as a business priority in corporate America. The firm’s annual study, Women in the Workplace, is the “definitive benchmark” for gender diversity, according to Rajgopal, drawing on data from 279 companies as well as a survey of more than 64,000 employees.

All told, businesses in search of a cause must “think really hard” about what is it that they do best and how their expertise can contribute to improving communities, said McAndrew. Those causes “will be the hardest to do, but they’ll be the ones worth doing and you’ll get the best return.”

Jackson, left, and Wilkins led an ally-skills workshop

In a series of four breakout sessions before the panel, business leaders talked about a variety of issues related to corporate values:

­–Jonathan Raymond, CEO of Refound, and Allan Swan, president of Panasonic Energy, spoke about the responsibility of leaders to be “high touch in a high-tech world.”

–Willie Jackson, DEI consultant and facilitator with ReadySet, and Maurice Wilkins, DEI manager for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, led an ally-skills workshop, focusing on new ways to foster critical conversations about different and equality.

–Kevin Yip, co-founder and CEO of Blueboard, an employee rewards and recognition platform, led a conversation called “Survive or Thrive: A lesson from elephants and rates for developing organizational empathy.”

–Jennifer VanderWeele, regional vice president of BetterUp, gave a presentation titled “The Human Side of Business Transformation,” which focused on “the science behind lasting behavior change and how to incorporate purpose into your strategy.”

Julie Madsen studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and works as a freelance journalist and a beat reporter for the Daily Californian, where she covers higher education and breaking news. Follow her on Twitter