What’s the purpose of a social purpose?

On a regular basis we carry out small-scale surveys of consulting firms, allowing us to dip a tentative, but still important, toe in the statistical waters. One of our most recent surveys was around social purpose—the extent to which firms have an explicit one, and what its value is. And the results are thought-provoking.

Just over half of the consulting firms who responded say they have a social purpose that’s central to their brand. But social purpose is more common in large firms than in mid-sized or small ones: Two-thirds of firms with more than 1,000 consultants say have a social purpose, compared to just a quarter of firms with fewer than 1,000 consultants. Around a quarter of firms with fewer than 1,000 consultants said they either don’t have a social purpose at all or were in the process of thinking about it; no large firms said this. Although some very small firms have had a social purpose for a long time, 68% of firms with more than 10,000 consultants said their social purpose was at least five years old—more than any other size of firm.

Asked why they thought a social purpose was important, three main reasons emerge: To improve their brand; to attract and/or retain employees; and to win new work from their clients. But does a social purpose help in practice? Let’s take these three reasons in reverse order.

Twenty-three percent of consultants said that helping them win new work from clients was one of the top two reasons for having a social purpose. To avoid a scenario in which all our respondents said everything is important, we asked them to rank the relative importance of social purpose against other aspects that influence clients’ buying decisions. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t do well: 67% said having a social purpose was less important than speed of delivery, 53% said it was less important than price, and 51% that it was less important than the ability to innovate. When it comes to shortlisting firms and deciding which one to hire, social purpose isn’t relevant. And this chimes with what we hear from clients: However much—as individuals—they may support a firm’s social purpose, their choice of firm has to be based on the latter’s ability to deliver the best result.

Forty-eight percent of clients said that the ability of a social purpose to help them attract new employees was one of their top two reasons for having a social purpose, and 33% said that helping retain existing employees was. More surprisingly, there are doubts about this too. Again asking respondents to rank social purpose relative to other factors likely to influence employees’ decisions, 47% said that evidence of opportunities for career progression was more important than purpose, and 42% that said the same of salary and benefits. However, 33% said that social purpose was more important than giving people opportunities to travel. At a time when business travel is severely limited, this sounds like damning with faint praise; moreover, 33% also thought that social purpose was actually less important in attracting and retaining people than travel opportunities. The only area where respondents thought that social purpose was more important was in relation to a firm’s stance around diversity & inclusion—it may be that social purpose is seen as a broader, more engaging concept.

So that leaves us with the main reason for social purpose, which is to improve a firm’s brand. Fifty-six percent of respondents said this was one of their top two reasons to have a social purpose (a proportion that didn’t vary much by size of firm). When we asked whether a social purpose was more or less important than brand in winning work, respondents were split 50:50 with half thinking it was more important and half thinking it was less important. But that sees brand in the context of what clients consider when shortlisting and making their final choice, whereas brand obviously plays a critical role in building up-front awareness.

To answer the question of whether a firm’s social purpose has an impact on its brand we need to ask clients—which is exactly what we did as part of a larger study about trust in the consulting industry. Data in this report shows that 82% of clients (note: this was a survey of US clients only) expect every consulting firm to have a “sense of purpose”. Asked why, the most important reason was that it helps create trust between the firm and its clients. Although a “sense of purpose” is not quite the same as social purpose, it does suggest that the latter can play an important role in establishing that consulting firms and clients share a common set of values and, as a consequence, work towards building trust between them.

What this also means is that a firm’s sense of purpose and/or social purpose needs to be primarily expressed through its core business. A firm’s social purpose has to be umbilically attached to its commercial purpose: Consulting firms have to demonstrate that their everyday work delivers social, as well as economic, value.