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Delivering on Mission and Purpose in A Polarized Society

By Dan Loeterman

Organizations are talking about contributing to society through “mission” and “purpose” more than ever before. This reflects new expectations among employees and consumers around the fundamental role of businesses today: That they should advance the common good and have a positive impact on our world.

At the same time, one company after another has found themselves thrust into controversy after wading into social issues. Bud Light, Disney, Target and Starbucks are just some of major brands that have become a target of politicians or consumers in recent months. In some cases this negative attention has had a material impact on performance or stock price. Organizations are moving more cautiously in how they talk about ESG or DEI efforts, terms that have become negative buzzwords in parts of the political spectrum.

It’s becoming harder to navigate the competing expectations of stakeholders. But that doesn’t mean organizations should shy away from communicating about key issues that relate to their mission and purpose. It’s more important that ever that engagement occur intentionally and as part of a strategic plan. And it need not be an all-or-nothing decision; companies increasingly must be able to engage multiple stakeholders simultaneously in different ways.

Many organizations have a process for evaluating when to engage on key issues – considering factors like stakeholder expectations, potential impact, track record, and risk. Increasingly, being seen as “walking the walk” on mission and purpose while also reducing risk means infusing that process into operational decisionmaking, as opposed to one-off engagements. Stakeholders are most likely to reward organizations that engage in a consistent way on topics that are clearly germane to their purpose.

Engaging on one issue with a certain stakeholder group may not work for all groups. There may be certain topics organizations decide to own – to lead on with all stakeholders. For instance, a health care organization may lean into to a commitment to health equity or affordability across its audiences and business segments. That commitment would reflect actions across the business, from consumer marketing, choices around access and pricing, partnerships, and employee engagement and training, in addition to special initiatives and financial contributions. Communicating regularly and openly about such efforts with a range of stakeholders builds credibility and trust.

Other issues may warrant more limited engagement with a certain audience – highlighting diversity efforts with employees or environmental commitments with investors, for instance. And organizations must have the discipline to reactively manage or avoid entirely those issues that don’t align with their mission or stakeholder expectations, even if they may feel pressure to react.

Companies find themselves in a different landscape than just a few years ago, with higher stakes and increased risk. But pulling back on engagement carries its own risk too. What’s most important is to have a strategy informed by a sophisticated understanding of stakeholders that can affect organizational outcomes, and a commitment to speaking about and delivering on purpose in a consistent and comprehensive way.


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