Making creative agencies & marketing firms a force for good.
10 DOs & DON'Ts to drive social impact
Culture, purpose, and impact. Three interconnected concepts that have captivated the business narrative for a decade.
When I co-founded my first agency in 2009, culture was king. Leaders from Silicon Valley to Madison Avenue waxed about fun office spaces filled with perks and engaged employees as the holy grail for ‘making a difference.’ So we wrote a culture guide with (un)policies inspired by Zappos and Netflix. We did innovative work for sexy sports and entertainment clients. We got acquired which brought global reach. And with culture in spades, the company went on to win awards like Best Places to Work. But the agency had no purpose other than making money and made no impact whatsoever on the world around us.
Years later I took a turnaround job at a struggling marketing firm. At this point we were all drinking the Simon Sinek Kool-Aid, and purpose dethroned culture. This agency said all the right things. It had a world-changing vision (but nobody believed it). It gave paid volunteer days (but few used them). And it even tried the Google 20% thing with one Friday each month to focus on impact (but people took the day to watch movies instead). Despite the stated good intentions and cliche office ping pong table, there was a cancer in the culture and turnover was high. So the purported purpose fell flat.
Today, everyone is talking about impact. And as the CEO of a nonprofit consultancy working with other for-profit agencies as allies, we’ve built social good into our DNA. From our binding 501c3 regulations to authentic, outward-facing vision and mission statements, we can’t camouflage impact with culture and purpose. Driving real social change for nonprofits and social enterprises is what we’re on the hook to do. Like one of our integrated marketing campaigns that gave 3,240 Kenyan kids healthcare for a year. There’s just no way to manufacture that level of meaning – for us, our allies, and their employees alike.
So after running three very different agencies in the last 10 years, I’ve learned a valuable lesson. For creative and marketing firms, the best way to foster genuine culture, live out a real purpose, and drive true impact is to work on work that matters. Especially for millennials, when studies show that younger team members value purpose-oriented projects over almost anything else.
In other words, using your time and talent on clients where the outcome is about much more than the bottom line. Where the results of campaigns, design, and code mean life-changing improvement for vulnerable communities – not marginal improvement for shareholders.
So where to start?
For those leaders looking to turn their agency into a force for good, here are 10 DOs and DON’Ts to drive social impact.
DON'T craft a vision about making the world better, then run your agency like a factory and only work with high-paying private sector clients. Tough love: many private sector brands are actually making matters worse in the world.
DO build impact into your ways of doing business. Then choose to unleash some of your skills on nonprofits, social enterprises, B Corps, and brands with a demonstrated history of impact.
DON'T just give money away or randomly donate team time to volunteer at an unrelated local nonprofit. Any company anywhere can do that. And certainly don’t let any excess capacity go un-utilized – idle time equals demotivation.
DO maximize your most precious resource – professional talent. Your team’s creative and marketing skills are far more valuable than monetary gifts or physical labor. And your agency expertise can truly have a multiplier effect.
DON'T let employees decide which causes to support like it's a vote for the office beer on tap. People come and go every few years and one person will care about orphaned puppies while the other has a passion for gender equality.
DO take a stand for a cause or set of issues that align with the company’s reason for being and values. As you focus and build that cause into your agency's fabric, you'll get smarter about the subject matter and do better work.
DON'T pick a specific organization to support without doing your homework. Everyone can tell a good story about their cause, and social sector leaders can be compelling. Especially when so many are on the brink of insolvency.
DO review a nonprofit’s public Form 990 or analyze a social enterprise’s impact reports. Meet with board members. Ask tough questions. There are millions of changemakers to champion, so ensure they deserve your support.
DON'T do hackathons. Just don’t. Or embark on any deliverable without a clear sense of strategy, beneficiary sensitivities, and how your work fits into the bigger social system. (Hint, there’s no way to find out in a 24-hour sleepless sprint).
DO give time to a cause that has a marcom leader on staff, to help translate context and real needs. Or (shameless plug), do your pro bono or low bono work through a nonprofit strategic partner like Mighty Ally to provide a guiding center point.
DON'T think of pro bono as a one-way street, where you’re giving alone. It doesn’t have to be a hand-out or hand-up. It can be a hand-shake.
DO find shared value in every engagement. Learn about a new vertical or build a portfolio piece. Work with social sector organizations that give your team a chance to apply their expertise in new ways. That’s good for business.
DON'T let your clients dictate the social good you do. If you're working with a changemaker because it helps with your for-profit relationships (e.g. your client is on the board of a nonprofit), your team will smell the (fishy) motives.
DO find ways to involve your for-profit clients in your social impact work. They have people, a platform, products, and philanthropy to give as well. And there’s unique power in working together for the greater good.
DON'T (speaking of clients) treat social sector brands any different than the rest of your portfolio. Even if you’re giving them work for cheap or free.
DO hold changemakers to the same standards you would any client. They're businesses too. Build them into your production schedule, call out their BS if needed, then staff and serve them like you would a full paying client.
DON'T create a dependency. You’re unlikely to serve any social sector organization forever. So don’t be short-sighted when creating solutions, like dropping a sophisticated tech innovation that only your CTO can operate.
DO deliver plans, campaigns, templates, and tools the changemaker can run themselves over time. And train their team along the way, building their internal capacity for the day you're gone. That’s teaching to fish.
DON'T say all the right things about making a difference, then let another year go by without doing anything. You're always busy. There's never a perfect time. But the world needs you. And, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
DO act today. Soul search around the causes you want to support. Put it on paper and share with your team to make it official. Then find an organization and give them a firm commitment of the time you're devoting to their efforts.
Sound good in theory but need help? Let’s talk.
Mighty Ally is one part strategy consultancy and one part marketing agency – arming underserved changemakers in the fight to meet basic human needs. We align high-potential NGOs and social enterprises through brand strategy and organizational health. Then we amplify their work with marketing, and through partnerships with for-profit brands. To make the most of our effort and keep changemaker costs low, we activate cross-sector allies along the way – like creative agencies and marketing firms.
Our end goal? Super-served changemakers with clarity of vision, higher performing teams, unique positioning, revenue growth, and strategic sustainability for the long haul.
Because as long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest. – Nelson Mandela