Photo by Renee Fisher on Unsplash

Compassionate Capitalism: A Post-Pandemic New Deal or Pipe Dream?

Intrapreneurs everywhere are showing that business is capable of care. But, will it last and is it enough?

Capitalism, as we know it, is dead. We can no longer wash our hands of our responsibility for what people do with our products…It’s time for a new capitalism — a more fair, equal and sustainable capitalism that actually works for everyone.” — Marc Benioff, CEO, Salesforce.

Marc Benioff’s call for a more “Compassionate Capitalism” has a new ring to it now.

Compassion, derived from the latin Compati, to suffer with, has taken center stage in this moment. There is now a real sense that “we’re all in this together.”

While this pandemic has surfaced fear and anxiety, systemic inequalities and the darker sides of humanity, it has also spotlit our capacity for compassion.

It has moved us to clap and hoot nightly to celebrate our healthcare heroes who, despite a lack of lifesaving equipment, show up to work each day to care for us. It has moved us to help neighbors who, previously, existed as shadows on the periphery of our daily commute. And it has moved us to share our gifts and talents — from singing to homeschooling — to inspire others and make us feel less alone and more connected.

But, what about big business? If ever there was a time for compassionate capitalism, this is it.

Here, the signals are mixed.

In the midst of mass furloughs and tone deaf CEO statements, we are also witnessing signs of corporate care.

Brewers are making hand sanitizer. Fashion designers are sewing masks. Junk-food makers are providing healthy meals to school children. Marketeers are crafting #stayathome messages and supportive practices for self-care. And pizza makers are doing home delivery dressed as dancing dinosaurs.

Interestingly, these efforts aren’t the result of benevolent decrees from the top, but more often are driven by compassionate employees in the bottom and middle ranks of the organizations. Employee activists, intrapreneurs and corporate do-gooders are illuminating a higher path or, in some cases, strong-arming their companies to show they care as we saw with GE employees protesting in order to make ventilators.

Myriam Sidibe, who has a doctorate in public health, has been advocating for corporate care as head of Unilever Social Mission for the past decade. Her relentless work to promote hand washing as a means of reducing disease using business as a platform now seems entirely prescient. But, this isn’t a fluke. Myriam is part of a growing movement of employees who are asking, “How can the assets of my organization — brand, people, technology — be used as a force for good?” Her new book, Brands on a Mission, outlines her philosophy of the role of the private sector in improving and saving lives. We call people like Myriam “social intrapreneurs.” Passionate, values-led employees who bring bold entrepreneurial vision and practical grit to hack the system from within the system.

Talk to most intrapreneurs now and you’ll hear some version of the following: “I was working on a product to serve vulnerable communities, but my organization always had some excuse for not investing. Now, all of a sudden, they’re interested.” So, intrapreneurs are dusting off their prototypes and ramping up solutions like telemedicine, workforce development, online education, and access to the internet.

So, corporations are capable of compassion. But will it last? And is it enough?

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Bring your Humanity to Work

In the 2004 movie, The Corporation, the filmmakers diagnosed the corporation as a psychopath with pathologies including ‘’disregard for the well-being of others,’’ ‘’inability to form lasting relationships’’ and ‘’deceitfulness.’’ This culture of profit and greed appeared to reach its sell-by date in 2008. Today, a diagnosis of schizophrenia feels more appropriate.

Companies still largely operate in their own interests, but calls for consideration of other stakeholders are happening at the highest levels. Business students are advancing the MBA Oath, which, modeled after the hippocratic oath, invites aspiring entrepreneurs and executives to “manage my enterprise with loyalty and care.”

Some believe that care will become the norm as millennials and now Gen Z take the reins of our most powerful institutions. They appear to be much more motivated by purpose and meaning.

But, we are still far from compassionate capitalism. Social intrapreneurship, social innovation and sustainable business remain the exception — a niche subculture within our powerful bureaucracies. Industries, such as airlines, prioritize shareholder buybacks rather than future-proofing their businesses by investing in low-carbon operations. Fossil fuel companies continue to push further into pristine wilderness despite the clarion call of climate change.

To create a culture of compassion within business we need to look at how we develop, recruit and retain our corporate leaders. We need to give permission to employees to prioritize care over profits and to bring forward solutions not to build the next billion dollar market, but to serve the next billion people. We need to invite people to stop leaving their values at the office door and redesign their day jobs to showcase the best of their humanity. Finally, we need a new social contract that puts the private sector in check by asking: what kind of growth are you delivering? Is it inclusive? Does it deliver for future generations? We need to re-prioritize the quality of the economic growth we are asking companies to chase.

Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash

Stop Making Stuff. Start Solving Real World Problems.

To be clear, this isn’t about turning our businesses into charities. This is about shifting the frame from selling more stuff, to solving real world problems that need solving.

This crisis is opening up markets that companies are sure to fill with plenty of profit to be had. On the list are resilient supply chains, which includes ensuring the health and wellbeing of the people in those chains, growing the green economy as a way to create jobs, reduce air pollution and improve human health, creating more local, sustainable food systems and the digital transformation of just about everything to ensure access to education, healthcare and the internet. Before COVID-19, the Sustainable Business and Development Commission estimated the size of markets to address the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at $12 trillion.

So, it is possible to care and make a profit too. But, this constant need to make the business case for care, to slot compassion into a discounted cash flow, to provide the net present value of empathy misses the point.

We need better language and metrics for the business of care itself. We need to weigh our investments in care with the same degree of sophistication and priority as our investments in growth. Over the past decade, the fields of social impact metrics, integrated P&Ls and ecosystem services have matured, but still haven’t broken through.

What’s needed now is a model of corporate governance that requires CEO’s to prioritize people and planet alongside profit. B-Corporations — entities legally required to consider their decisions on all stakeholders — are making strides with nearly 3,000 SME’s certified globally. Danone North America became the first certified corporate B-Corp. Nonprofits may play a more leading role in essential services like healthcare. And we have to get over our obsession with unicorns and start celebrating zebras, ethical businesses who create shared value over the long term.

Photo by kate.sade on Unsplash

Move over capitalists, we need bureaucrats.

For all his calls for a new capitalism, Marc Benioff’s Salesforce did not pay any federal income tax in 2018. If we are to have a truly compassionate capitalism, we have to recognize and support the role of government in addressing market failures (pollution, inequality) and providing public goods (education, health care).

The pandemic seems to be ushering in a new era of government with daily briefings from governors rebuilding trust with citizens and regional alliances strengthening our response systems. While it is too early to say what comes next, we know we will need a new level of creativity and innovation from within government to bring about whole systems change, which results in economic prosperity, health and wellbeing and environmental sustainability. Fortunately, intrapreneurs have been hard at work within government too, prototyping initiatives like Universal Basic Income, The 15-minute city and Inclusive Workforce Development.

This crisis is presenting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform capitalism. There is plenty of vision, imagination and solutions to do it. But, to succeed, we have to want to. We have to remember the feeling of this moment: there is no us and them, there is just us. We have to hold on to our sense of connectedness when we go back to work and to ask ourselves when designing the next product, building the new solution or making the new investment, “How will this show the world we care?”

About the Author: Maggie De Pree believes in the power of human agency — the ability for people to choose to make a difference in the world. She has spent over a decade harnessing the innovation potential of businesses — big and small — to address issues ranging from climate change to healthcare. Maggie is a Co-founder and Global Director of The League of Intrapreneurs and an entrepreneur and strategist, working to advance systems change with Fortune 500 companies, governments, and NGOs. She is a recipient of the Grant Thornton 100 Faces of a Vibrant Economy Award, regularly speaks and writes on the topic of sustainable innovation and intrapreneurship, and is the co-author of The Intrapreneur’s Guide to Pathfinding.

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