Millennials to business: Social responsibility isn’t optional

December 20, 2011

Michelle Nunn is CEO of Points of Light Institute, a nonprofit nonpartisan volunteer organization with more than 20 years of history. She is also the co-founder of the HandsOn Network, the volunteer-focused arm of the Points of Light Institute.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is largely fueled by a relatively small set of young people who view the protests as a fight for their future. The vast majority, however, are getting up and going to work every day — or wishing they could. These individuals are part of a less dramatic but, perhaps, equally powerful movement of Millennials shaping the future of business. As consumers, employees and entrepreneurs, Millennials are shifting the norms of corporate America’s conduct, ethical imperatives and purpose. In his book, “The Way We’ll Be,” pollster John Zogby documents how these “First Globals” are more conscientious consumers than their predecessors, demanding greater honesty and accountability from businesses.

Millennials are bringing their values into the career equation by placing a premium on employers’ reputation for social responsibility and the opportunities those companies and organizations provide their employees to make a positive impact on society. Sixty-one percent of 18- to 26-year-olds polled in a 2011 Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT survey said they would prefer to work for a company that offers volunteer opportunities. Over the past decade, this generational shift has pushed these programs to be more sophisticated, generating billions of dollars of pro bono support for nonprofits and activating millions of skilled volunteers.

Even as the economy has slowed, companies are expanding volunteer programs because these programs attract, develop, motivate and retain the most dynamic and passionate employees. The most innovative of these companies also understand these programs as critical to their bottom line. IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, launched in 2008, has deployed 1,200 IBMers to more than 20 countries, in both a highly competitive leadership development program and a rigorous endeavor to bring the corporation’s skills to bear on complex problems in developing communities. IBM Chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano said at the program’s founding that “we fully expect [this] will make IBM a more competitive and successful business.”

Millennials, as consumers, are pushing companies to change the ways of doing business to align with the values of civic and global responsibility largely held by Millennials. Monitoring supply chains, safeguarding labor and environmental conditions for the creation of products and embracing environmental sustainability have become basic requirements to preserve relationships with customers and retain young employees. A recent market study by the public relations firm Edelman shows that consumers now expect brands to support causes. Many companies are responding to this market shift in ways that integrate causes fully into their business strategy and brand identities. Earlier this year, the Millennial founders of GOOD Magazine launched a subsidiary consulting business called GOOD/Corps, which is helping some of the world’s most recognizable brands navigate and profit from what they call the “Values Revolution” driven by this generation. Companies like Pepsi, Toyota and Starbucks are seeking their guidance on building the meaningful connections that these consumers demand.

While Millennials are transforming established businesses, they are also starting a new breed of businesses with built-in social missions that are resonating with the marketplace and revolutionizing their sectors. TOMS Shoes was founded in 2006 by 30-year-old Blake Mycoskie and has quickly become one of the fastest-growing apparel companies in the world. Well known for its groundbreaking “One-for-One” model that donates a pair of shoes in the developing world for every pair sold, it is also growing a fiercely loyal and active following through its anti-poverty advocacy efforts. It is hard to imagine a traditional shoe brand being able to mobilize a network of 1,200 campus chapters and 250,000 young people in a single day to promote its brand, but that is exactly what TOMS has accomplished with its “One Day Without Shoes” campaign.

Despite the economic downturn and the headlines, the nation’s private sector is still lively. The values behind Occupy Wall Street are manifesting themselves in the marketplace and companies that are failing to take notice should start. These people-powered movements may not have stopped the markets in their tracks, but they are creating the demand for new forms of corporate behavior and ethical imperatives. The winning brands of the future will be ones that authentically respond.

This may result in an aligning of private-sector muscle to address the very inequities, lack of transparency and poverty that Occupy Wall Street has spotlighted. A new generation of employees, consumers and entrepreneurs is stepping forward with a better way of doing business — putting its bets on the goodness of people rather than loading the dice in its own favor.

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