10/21/2013 05:25 EDT | Updated 12/21/2013 05:12 EST

Can an Altruistic Business Model Also Be Profitable?

Call it wishful thinking, but there is a distinctive "feel good" vibe in the air.

It's been five years since Lehman Brothers collapsed, sparking a global financial crisis that many attribute to unbridled corporate greed. As with all anniversaries, pundits and experts love to examine how far we've come, if things will ever change and if we're destined to repeat any poorly learnt lessons.

But five years in, I can't help but get a sense that being good, as a corporate citizen and employer has become more deeply ingrained in our corporate culture. It's no longer just the imaginations of creative PR companies that are extolling the virtues of their clients; companies and employers themselves seem to be drinking the Kool Aid of presenting themselves as simultaneously virtuous and profitable.

Perhaps I suffer from a terrible case of confirmation bias and see only what I like but the examples keep on coming. A few weeks ago, I stumbled across the hashtag #keepgoodgoing by New York Life Insurance. I expected this to instigate the usual cynicism found on all social media sites but the reaction on the twittersphere by employees and the public appeared genuinely enthusiastic. Then I found Visa Canada, whose #goodbusy hashtag, also struck a genuine note.

Naturally, companies are doing more than presenting mere feel good vibes and corporate social responsibility isn't a new trend. Yet this cocktail of being a good corporate citizen with a strong emphasis on profits appears to be gaining more traction.

Thought leaders like the Harvard Business Review's Umair Haque believe this is the wave of the future and in his "Great to Good Manifesto," declared that great companies needs to launch good initiatives to stay relevant to its consumers.

But is good and profitable a sustainable business model? While MBA programs and companies extol the virtues of people, profit and planet, can our corporate culture continue to evolve and embrace a triple bottom line?

Yes, according to Phillip Haid, CEO of Public Inc., an agency that creates scalable social impact campaigns by driving the self-interest of individuals, companies and charities. But only if we stop viewing them as separate entities.

"Imagine if companies started thinking about the social impact they wanted to create in the world and tied it to bottom line performance. The potential impact could be incredible," explained Mr. Haid.

"It would allow them to differentiate their service and product offerings in the marketplace, build an even more loyal following of consumers and employees and the measurable impact on communities would be far greater than giving money through their charitable foundations. Companies are starting to do this ...but it is still early days," he added.

As an example, he cites TOMS, which donates a pair of shoes for each one purchased or Warby Parker, which runs a similar model but for sunglasses. Closer to home, Mr. Haid cites Canadian Tire's, "We All Play for Canada" campaign, which he believes, if done right, can advance both an advocacy agenda around more physical activity for kids and families while selling more products.

"A for profit company that bakes social good right into their business model and brand can be a huge differentiator and drive sales (but) The integration of profit and purpose is only successful if the core product is really good. Purpose on its own is not enough," he added.

Ultimately, going forward, it will be up to consumers to decide if this approach resonates or not but Mitchell Kutney, co-founder of Ottawa-based JustChange, which offers $1,000 grants to initiatives that provide positive environmental, social and economic outcomes, remains positive.

"It is clear that today's generation does not care to separate altruism from the corporate world as was perhaps initially seen in the division between traditional nonprofit and for-profit organizations," said Mr. Kutney,

As an example, he cites companies such as Chimp Technology in Vancouver which simplifies charity donations or Gradian Health Systems in New York City, which equips hospitals in Africa and other developing countries with portable anesthesia machines.

"Both of these organizations have altruism at core of their mandate, and still serve their bottom line," he stated.

Even if the two concepts of good and great continue to become more intertwined, it will be interesting to see how that notion evolves and if one mandate will eventually trump the other. For Mr. Kutney, it's clear which direction companies should follow.

"It is certainly beneficial for a company's bottom line to be good, but that is a drop in the ocean in light of the systemic and global challenges facing modern society," he observed.

"The income gap and climate change are two colossal examples that will require committed leadership from all sectors, especially the corporate world if we ever hope to resolve them, and I can't think of a better CSR package than that."

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