How purpose becomes impactful

For edie’s Business Leadership Month, Nicki Lyons, chief corporate affairs & sustainability officer, Vodafone UK, looks at how brands can make their purpose both meaningful and tangible.

How purpose becomes impactful

As a cost-of-living crisis, a war in Europe and political turbulence persist, corporate purpose has never been more important. In the last decade, I’ve been fortunate enough to work at businesses that are purpose-led, driven by a desire to make a positive impact – from Walgreens Boots Alliance, Unilever and PepsiCo to my current role at Vodafone UK. Here’s what I’ve learnt about how businesses can transform talking about corporate purpose into action and tangible change, at a time when it’s needed most.

1) It’s a commitment, not a headline

To make long-term change, businesses must make a long-term commitment. Many of the societal and environmental issues that businesses build their purpose around are complex, deep-rooted challenges. They need to be matched with equally comprehensive, holistic and long-term commitments to unpick these issues and deliver real change.

This is no truer than when talking about climate action. A long-term view is currently helping us deliver on our environmental commitments. We’ve secured power purchase agreements from 10 renewable sites across the UK, giving us access to clean, quality and affordable renewable electricity for the next 10 years, as well as securing their development to bring additional renewable power provision to the UK Grid. Steps like this – and others like switching on the UK’s first live ‘self-powering’ mobile phone mast– mean we’re making significant progress towards our goal of net zero UK operations by 2027.

I also believe a company’s purpose needs to be authentic; after all, genuine interests last longer. This means aligning a business to a problem it can actually fix. At Vodafone, our purpose is to ‘connect for a better future’. We believe everyone in the UK should benefit from the opportunities digital technology provides, so our focus is ensuring no one gets left behind on the UK’s digital journey.

That’s why I’m passionate about everyone connected, our commitment to tackling digital exclusion. An estimated 1.7 million households remain digitally excluded, meaning they don’t have access to proper connectivity, devices or digital skills. So far, we’ve provided free connectivity to one million people through everyone.connected, and our goal is to help four million people cross the digital divide by 2025. This includes providing free connectivity to those who need it most, affordable products and services and digital skills. I believe we’re making great progress because we’re focusing on what we do best.

2) Partner up

The saying goes “two minds are better than one”. And when it comes to impactful corporate purpose, I know this to be true. Long-term commitment to a specific issue gives a business credibility, which in turn gives it the opportunity to collaborate with expert organisations. I’ve found that these partnerships offer corporates access to the unique on-the-ground insight required to make tangible change.

At the heart of everyone.connected, for example, sit our NGO partners. Strategic relationships with charities including Barnardo’s, The Trussell Trust, The Good Things Foundation and Independent Age have given us an invaluable understanding of the people who need support with connectivity, and how our technology and resources can help. Similarly, our partnership with WWF is helping us better understand the UK’s e-waste crisis, its impact on nature and what action should be taken to address it.

Other big brands do this well – Boots, for example, has been in partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support for 12 years. The collaboration provides information and support for cancer patients through Boots’ easy-to-access stores, which sit at the heart of communities across the UK. A great example of the impactful combination of expert knowledge and on-the-ground retail.

Individual businesses can’t solve everything; true social and environmental impact happens when organisations come together.

3) Pursue solutions in partnership with Government

We’d all like the Government to do more in certain areas, but businesses can’t simply approach policymakers with a plea to alter legislation or find more money. Sharing tried, tested and evidence-backed solutions get the best results.

For example, we’re developing a rich body of lived experience on the topic of digital exclusion. We’ve partnered with insight and strategy consultancy Thinks Insight and Strategy to undertake a significant longitudinal study to learn which interventions are best able to close the digital divide. We’ll be sharing our findings with Government, presenting case studies of how specific interventions have real-life impact on digital exclusion, so we can close the digital divide together.

The world in which sustainability professionals operate is getting noisier, faster and more challenging. But this means our work is even more important; businesses must continue to deliver on social and environmental objectives at a time when the country needs them most. For corporate purpose to translate into real social value, there must be a clear strategy and direction – one that builds credibility, brings in those who know more than you and seeks to help where it can have most impact.

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