Centering Equity in Corporate Purpose

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Change often begins with a question. And in the search for answers, you can find a range of outcomes from minor shifts to game-changing ideas and even revolutions.

In the summer of 2020, the Shared Value Initiative (SVI) and those who lead shared value consulting at FSG were asked a pointed question by some of our colleagues and partners:

Is shared value contributing to greater equity or is it helping to hold inequities in place?

This uncomfortable and ultimately catalytic question was posed as we began to see the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on the health and economic wellbeing of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in the U.S. It came weeks after the murder of George Floyd fueled a national and global outcry over the systemic racism that pervades life in America and other forms of systemic oppression around the world.

The question started us on a journey to deeply interrogate shared value and corporate purpose and define their relationship to equity.

As we embarked on our search for answers, we reached out to both champions and critics of shared value as well as those somewhere in-between. We talked with more than 80 business and social impact leaders from around the world including colleagues, NGO leaders, and equity experts. We also navigated our own personal journeys—examining our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors around equity and power, and facing some difficult truths about where we have each been part of the problem. This experience, along with the insights from our contributors, has informed our current thinking and the work we share at this 20-month milestone.

Today we are pleased to release Centering Equity in Corporate Purpose, a guide for corporate practitioners committed to advancing equity regardless of where you are on that journey. If you are asking questions about the role your company’s practices are playing in advancing equity, or if you are trying to deliver on your company’s public commitments to address inequities that reflect community needs, or if you want your company’s purpose to make a more meaningful impact on society, this guide is for you.

As we address equity, we consider it in all forms, including but not limited to racial, gender, sexual identity, ability, socioeconomic, and religious equity. We intentionally designed the guide to be broad and not specific to any industry, economy, or geography, as we recognize that each company will have a unique approach based on the context in which it operates.

What is universal is the need for companies to “be in relationship with the problem” they are trying to solve.

This requires a long-term commitment to an ongoing dialogue with the people the problem affects, embracing their concerns, learning from their experiences, valuing their current contributions and untapped potential to society, and working to share and build power with those communities.

This guide provides an approach for how companies can integrate a focus on equity into business strategy and describes five key practices for transforming the development and implementation of strategy through an equity lens.

This is not a separate equity strategy, but a business strategy that integrates equity.

We also identify and describe a set of critical enabling conditions that allow the practices to flourish and lay a foundation for a more inclusive organization.

We believe without this transformational change of integrating equity into business strategy, company commitments to advance equity and improve outcomes will not result in substantive positive impact on society. We also recognize that business strategy is not the sole mechanism by which companies advance equity. There are values, norms, and broader policies and practices (e.g., DEI in hiring, advancement and decision-making authority, governance that holds leaders and the organization accountable, and equal and transparent compensation policies) that companies adopt outside of the confines of strategy to reduce inequities and improve outcomes.

In response to the question that catalyzed this work, we believe that while shared value is an important tool to advance equity, shared value alone is not enough. Shared value can be a powerful tool but only when applied intentionally as part of a comprehensive portfolio of complementary practices, including advocacy, corporate philanthropy, and policy or process changes that may represent a net cost to the company in order to build power within communities and effectively deliver more equitable outcomes for society as a whole.

Developing this guide was a natural next step as we seek to apply what we know about advancing equity with companies around the world. Over the years, FSG has contributed to the discussion of racial equity in the U.S. through a partnership with PolicyLink and co-published the Competitive Advantage of Racial Equity and the CEO Blueprint for Racial Equity, the latter also in partnership with JUST Capital. Through Talent Rewire, we regularly work with companies to center equity in their talent management systems to advance economic mobility and inclusion for frontline employees. And at a global level, we work with clients on advancing gender equity across several topics including economic empowerment and health.

Despite our individual and collective experience with advancing equity, we recognize that we are still in the early stages of our own equity journeys, and we will continue to learn, grow, and share new perspectives and tools as we make progress. We will also keep asking ourselves uncomfortable questions and push through the discomfort to uncover new insights and answers.

We are indebted to those who have worked for years to dismantle inequities and who have helped us see the system that holds them in place and how we contribute to and benefit from that system. We hope this effort to put equity at the center of corporate purpose honors that work and makes a contribution toward creating a more fair, just, and equitable world.

We welcome conversations about how your organization is centering equity in your work and purpose, learnings from your experience, and any feedback on this guide:

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