(Photo by Mikolette/iStock by Getty Images)

The Cheesecake Factory is a place where people often go in moments of celebration. When the pandemic hit and there was not a lot to celebrate, Megan Bloomer, the company’s VP of sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR), thought that the best way to express a core tenet of the Cheesecake Factory’s mission was to provide meals for frontline workers. “I asked our staff members what they liked, and they said, ‘We wish we could see the smiles of the health-care workers we’re feeding,’” Bloomer said.

So Cheesecake Factory employees started creating posters containing a QR code with the message, “We’re so honored to serve you, thank you for all you do. We’d love to see a picture of you.” Once taken, the photos were made available to staff members, who could print them out. “Staff members could not celebrate occasions, but celebrated frontline workers who were fighting day-in, day-out. It’s about finding a central value,” she said.

Bloomer’s anecdote was part of a panel conversation during From Day One’s Aug. 10 virtual conference on offering workers dignity, purpose and fulfillment. In a conversation with moderator Lydia Dishman, a senior editor at Fast Company, the executives addressed the topic of “Activating Purpose in Three Steps: How to Identify Needs, Build Structures, and Measure Your Progress.”

In a 2021 McKinsey survey surveying more than 1,200 employees at U.S. companies, 82% spoke of the importance of corporate purpose, but only 42% reported that their company’s statement of purpose made a real difference. The problem seemed to be that the statements of purpose have the tendency to be too generic. “Contributing to society” or “creating meaningful work,” without specifically following through to having an impact, no longer cuts it.

We live in an era where Millennial and Gen Z employees value working for a company doing good in society. These new generations say they’re willing to take lower compensation in order to work for an organization they support. This means leaders have to stop and see what that means in the long term. “I would say at a high level, a great way to set this up within a company is by having a collaborative approach with your CSR team, with your human resources team, with your communications team, and then feeding that up to your leadership,” said Linda Wilson, senior account executive for corporate solutions at Blackbaud, a cloud software company powering social good.

“So your strategy, your impact, how you’re tracking that, and how that feeds back to your business, return on investment–all of these pieces at that strategic business level come together, and that obviously will track through to individual contributors, the employees, keeping your top talent, helping your employees grow their skills, live their dreams, and their career path,” Wilson said.

The Need for a Connection

“Connection is necessary for employee and public engagement,” said Neil Giacobbi, an executive in federal public affairs at AT&T. “As corporate America is transitioning from philanthropy to aligning product to values, it’s important to understand that you don’t always have the luxury to engage them directly, especially in a reactive mode–that requires some top-down, but when you have that time and space to be proactive, you have a north star.”

Speaking on activating purpose, top row from left: moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, Megan Bloomer of The Cheesecake Factory, and Aileen Strickland McGee of Steelcase. Bottom row: Neil Giacobbi of AT&T, Linda Wilson of Blackbaud, and Janelle Meyers of Kellogg’s (Image by From Day One)

For example, AT&T decided to help parents and caregivers who were buying children their first cell phones to find and activate the parental-control feature. “It was about training the retail workforce to identify those customers, and [about] providing them with key tips and websites,” Giacobbi said.

“How did we arrive at that? It required extensive design workshopping with our frontline retail reps to design, test, and refine the program in-store. That engagement tapped into the knowledge of our reps, and enabled them to contribute something meaningful. I think those criteria, and being able to engage employees with something where they can bring their knowledge, was a program that worked and improved customer satisfaction,” he said.

The Need for Timeless Values for the 21st Century

Steelcase is a company specializing in office design and furnishings, which has kept faithful to values established over the course of 110 years. In the pandemic era, however, the company had to take into account that the future of work doesn’t look the way they thought it would just three years ago. “Certainly, we build upon things in the past, but when we started looking into new programs–take our social innovation–we moved from philanthropic stuff to really reinventing what it means to be socially engaged within our community,” said Aileen Strickland McGee, Steelcase’s manager of ESG strategy. “And so our social innovation practice has moved from being more passive to really being much more active in a way that is more authentic and connected to our purpose as a company.” The company creates the support structure for social impact where employees are located, but wants the initiatives to be employee-driven. “The structure is pretty basic, but then it’s up to the employee to take that to meet the needs of the community and then invest time and energy where they’re more passionate,” said Strickland McGee.

The impact of community outreach can’t be understated, especially in a global context. One such case is IBM’s Service Corps program, said Blackbaud’s Wilson.  “Employees had to apply to be part of a global team. If they were accepted, it was almost as if they won the lottery,” she said. “They would go to a growth-market country together for a month, they would work on community projects. At a high level, they were able to leverage their skills and expertise, but then they were also able to grow and expand not only how to work together collaboratively at that global capacity, but also just being put into environments that were unfamiliar to them”

The Need for Amplification

At the iconic food-and-beverage company Kellogg’s, the founder Will Keith Kellogg believed that doing something good for society was intrinsic to doing business. In this era, that purpose is represented in the company’s Better Days commitment of “driving positive change for 3 billion people, feeding people in need and nurturing our planet,” the company states. “As we reflect on our heritage and try to connect that,” said Janelle Meyers, chief sustainability officer for Kellogg’s, one consideration is “stakeholder engagement–listening internally to employees in different functions, figure out how it aligns with our business goals,” Meyers said. “In the last year and a half, as leadership teams, we really thought about our specific narrative as ESGs. We took all the different inputs, and we’re leaning into Better Days promises, [centered around] well-being, hunger, sustainability, and diversity, equity and inclusion.”

The focus on people, in particular, resonated with stakeholders, so the company created a program called Kellogg Amplify, an app for employees, customers and others to share news about the company’s initiatives. “The idea is that we create content on all these different ways that Kellogg teams are activating [toward ESG goals], whether it’s in our own operations or with community partners at large, and they can go and basically pick up these ready-made stories and be able to amplify it on their own social media and add a little bit about their contribution.” If you’re doing good, after all, you might as well get the word out.

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.