Don’t give up on purpose 

By Nadine Smith, Director – Government & Enterprise, Social Finance 

5 January 2024

Not many news updates from the charity sector can make public affairs teams sit up, this one from Lankelly Chase might. This large charitable foundation that is over 50 years old announced that they were going to redistribute all assets, dismantle and close and this was their reason:

We have recognised the gravity of the interlocking social, climate and economic global crises we are experiencing today. At the same time, we view the traditional philanthropy model as so entangled with Colonial Capitalism that it inevitably continues the harms of the past into the present. We acknowledge our role in maintaining this traditional model and know that these times demand bold action from us all in charitable organisations. This is our response.’

This might look like an identity crisis for anyone in public affairs but for me it is the most authentic and bold rethink of purpose that I have seen from the charity sector. Purpose is nothing new but this reminds me that knowing how your purpose truly impacts society is the road to better societal outcomes and key to maintaining your legitimacy. Public opinion backs this up. At the same time no one wants to be accused of purpose washing - investors, consumers and donors can spot that a mile off. Far better to be ahead of them than get caught out.

No one is above scrutiny, even the National Lottery Community Fund. The Fund distributes over £600m to charitable foundations a year but Danny Kruger’s 2020 report criticised the Fund for working in silos and recommended that the government should “rethink the purpose and model” and “explore options for an even more localised, community-led system for distribution.”

Their new strategy ‘It starts with Community’ would see them shift purpose towards ‘turbo charging support for grassroots projects.’ This has been more than a rebrand but something that is determining their whole business and operating model and importantly helps to secure their legitimacy. They have since announced a doubling of grants for grassroots projects.

Grant givers are feeling the need to truly know they are intentionally doing good and have better measurable outcomes to prove it, yet many cannot get past trustees. In my field of work, we act as a ‘learning partner’ to government, funders and charities and we bring not just data and charts to the table but get out to those with lived experience to test evidence and continually refine the meaning and impact of our purpose. Purpose is not static, world events also put purpose under continual question. 

For public affairs teams in organisations seeking financial investments, there is a demand for clarity of purpose and evidence of intentional social impact. 

A government commissioned report ‘Growing a culture of investing’ shows good outcomes could come through more social investment. It says, ‘“what happens to my money?” is an increasingly common question levied at the financial sector…and often comes with the hope, or expectation, that (the) savings will help tackle social and environmental challenges’. It says social investing can produce those intentional societal outcomes, indeed it has, but clarity about what social investing is remains a challenge. This is something we can overcome and begin to explore across our organisations.

ESG and CSR are no strangers to criticism but public affairs teams know both matter for demonstrating purpose. They could be expanded to cover health. The Health Foundation wants health to be seen as an ESG issue with sufficient data mechanisms so that investors can embed health into policy and practices. Public affairs teams could align around a common purpose with other sectors, such as health, to accelerate action and to give government confidence in those instruments in an age of heightened scrutiny. Purpose can therefore be shared, it does not have to be unique or competing and certainly not doing harm.

Purpose has always mattered for public affairs teams but its impact on society needs to matter more now, for investment but also for trust, endorsements, for brand ambassadors and retaining staff and customers. Knowing you really are achieving purpose for societal impact requires more nuanced and clearer definitions of what good looks like and value given to reporting of non-financial intentional outcomes as well as continual learning. 

Public affairs teams should not fear scrutiny of purpose or see a review of it as a signal of an identity ‘crisis’ therefore. Done boldly, regularly and with your communities at the heart, it could be end of something but also the start of something better.