Corporate Social Innovation: Why More Companies Are Balancing Profit Margins With Social Responsibility—And the Challenges They Face

Socially responsible efforts have positive short- and long-term results, but there are some challenges companies face in implementing them.                          

Carter Liebscher|
March 19, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has upended a lot in the world of business, including the way employees work.

On the other hand, this health crisis has identified the gaps in companies’ current policies and initiatives, providing an opportunity for many to learn how to innovate when they’re down to still come on top.

At Ideawake, we strive to empower employees in their organization, whether they’re front-line employees or working virtually—an especially pertinent mission statement considering the growing number of remote workers multiplying by the day.

As more companies are working toward implementing more employee-oriented policies, many are also striving to make social impact for members of the public.

This type of balancing act—balancing financial and social objectives—is referred to as social innovation. Below is a more detailed definition from the Social Innovation Academy:

Social innovation [includes] innovative activities and services that are motivated by the goal of meeting a social need and that are predominantly developed and diffused through organisations [sic] whose primary purposes are social.

“8 popular social innovation definitions,” Grigorios Balamatsias, Social Innovation Academy

To break it down even more, social innovation is when organizations, non- or for-profit, set out to solve, or at least assist in, social issues through a single or multiple initiatives.

Shifting consumer and employee expectations for how companies should operate is one driving factor. Employees derive more meaning from work they morally agree with. Consumers do too, and they expect companies to address global issues to the best of their ability.

However, as more companies develop goals and allotting resources to society-wide issues, what challenges do they face?

Balancing business and social finances

Companies can easily vocalize which social causes they support, but it’s harder to initiate socially impactful projects that also make fiscal sense.

While decision makers typically champion low-risk ventures, we know that the most innovative organizations build goodwill from the most unlikely of projects. Social impact initiatives positively affect society at-large as well as companies’ reputations—effects that are both short- and long-term.

Proving legitimacy

Corporate philanthropy is often met with skepticism from both sides. Internally, many social innovators are believed to not keep the business’s bottom line in mind; externally, they’re believed to be driven solely by profit.

Forging partnerships with other organizations dedicated to the same cause or similar causes builds that legitimacy for both internal and external actors.

However, forming such relationships can be difficult due to the biggest challenge: lack of organizational support.

Little—if any—internal support

Some companies may have never considered funding social issue initiatives. Maybe they’re too young or too small, or maybe there aren’t any appropriate structures

Philips, for example, wanted to act on the innovative and socially responsible ideas its African sales teams were generating, but decision makers quickly realized there wasn’t appropriate infrastructure to enact them. As such, in a collaborative effort between Philips Africa and the company’s global R&D and strategy teams, the Philips Africa Innovation Hub was formed through ring-fenced funding.

Such initiatives take time and resources, but the payoff—goodwill building, employee engagement, shareholder growth—is great.

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