Adventures in social purpose

profile picture Yoti 7 min read
an image of lots of hot air balloons against a deep blue sky

It’s been exactly 18 months since I joined Yoti, initially as Head of Social Impact but more recently under a revised title of Head of Social Purpose. We felt the word ‘impact’ was too focused on the end result, and not enough on the process, the DNA and the ethos of what we were trying to do. While we do, of course, want our efforts to have a positive impact, we believe that how you go about creating that impact is equally as important – perhaps more important – as the impact itself. 

Most of my career has been spent in the global conservation and development sectors, a place where commitment to doing good is more often than not obvious and plain for all to see. Things are a little different in the corporate world. With the exception of a few Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities, my exposure to companies genuinely trying to ‘do well by doing good’ has been rather limited – until I started work at Yoti.

Bringing all of our ‘doing good’ together into a coherent and comprehensive Social Purpose Programme has been a fascinating exercise for me, and for the company. And it would appear we’re on the right track with our recent nomination in the Best in Brand Purpose category in The Drum Social Purpose Awards. 

We thought it might be helpful to share a little of what we’ve learnt along the way.


Look for the badge of honour

We’ve all heard of greenwashing – the covering up of environmental harm caused by a company’s activities by producing a glossy brochure that pushes the few good things the company might do. Anyone can do good PR or spin a story, but not everyone can become a B Corp. B Corps are the badge of honour for companies doing good. Heavily audited, they are committed to ‘doing well by doing good’. I’ve heard this from many of my colleagues at Yoti, and it’s also true in my case – Yoti’s B Corp status was a big factor in my decision to join. 


Find a company whose products you believe in

It’s hard to build a social purpose programme around a company whose products don’t improve the human condition in some way or another, or worse, that have the potential to cause actual social or environmental harm. First and foremost, join a company that has products with the potential to do the kind of good you believe in. For me, this was a no-brainer at Yoti. Keeping people safe online is a big deal. 


CSR doesn’t equate to purpose

Companies can do great work through their CSR programmes, and many do. The trouble is by sectioning off the ‘good things we do’ into a separate department, or corner of the office, this tends to silo all the positive from the day-to-day drudge of the business. People want to work for companies that are good through and through, where everyone contributes – not companies that are around about average with a few people running a small CSR programme. 


Senior management buy-in is key

I’ve been fortunate at Yoti to have the full buy-in of the CEO, CFO and entire senior management team. Not only do social purpose programmes cost money, from time to time they can divert resources away from other commercial activities that are crucial to the business. Building out a quality, meaningful social purpose programme without senior management buy-in is going to be close to impossible, not to mention the signal that gives to staff further down that purpose isn’t something the company wants, or takes seriously. Purpose has to matter to everyone, from the top to the bottom. 


Engage in a little silo busting

Yoti is a digital identity company and our product offerings are a little niche (we’re obviously working hard to change that). Rather than restricting our outreach to the digital identity sector, we’ve been increasingly talking to the humanitarian sector (where our expertise has value) and various anthropology-focused networks (our social purpose work is very human-focused). We’re now increasingly sharing our experiences with others who work in social purpose. Think about the work you’re doing, and think about how it might cross over into other sectors. Nobody wants to talk in an echo chamber. 


Be evidence-based

Try to develop a strategy that is evidence-based. Carry out research where appropriate, and be open to learning if you don’t have the answers. At Yoti a relatively small amount of money funded a piece of UK-based research last summer which seriously challenged our social impact ambitions. This lead us to pivot to a more international strategy which you see today.


Embrace your ‘known unknowns’

Hold an internal workshop to gain a better understanding of how your colleagues see social impact and purpose – how it might be defined, and how it might be achieved and measured. Yes, you’ll almost certainly be learning on your feet so be open and transparent about the process – consider pulling everything together into an Impact Report of some kind. Be open and honest the whole time – not just with the end results but with the process. People will respect you for it. 


Define the undefined

We recently sent out a short two-minute survey to Yoti staff, and one of the questions challenged them to define our social purpose in one sentence (Disney’s, for example, is “to use our imaginations to bring happiness to millions”). The responses were as fascinating as they were wide-ranging. This matters if you’re looking for a single, coherent message about why your company exists. Before you do too much, define what you mean by social purpose – and get everyone behind it.


Embrace the wider sector

At Yoti we don’t just have eyes on our own products and services. We believe that a healthy digital identity sector is in the interests of everyone. Because of this, a large part of our Social Purpose Strategy seeks to support the development of healthy debate around digital identity, and the democratisation of the technology behind it. We have invested time, money and resources into an exciting Fellowship Programme and the development of a Toolkit. Whatever the objectives of your social purpose efforts, don’t forget to look beyond your own four walls. 


Build networks. Buy books

One of the most exciting things about starting something new is that it presents the best possible opportunity to learn. Reach out to other Heads of Social Purpose in other industries, and other countries. Ask them for advice. Ask them about their favourite social purpose books. Search for impact reports online to figure out how other companies define, measure and communicate why they exist. A few books I’m already beginning to find useful include:


  • Roy Spence and Haley Rushing – It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For: Why Every Extraordinary Business is Driven by Purpose
  • David Hieatt – Do Purpose: Why Brands With a Purpose Do Better and Matter More
  • Markus Kramer – The Guiding Purpose Strategy: A Navigational Code for Brand Growth
  • Aaron Hurst – The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire for Impact, Personal Growth and Community Is Changing the World
  • John Mackey – Conscious Capitalism


Have I missed anything? If you head up social purpose within your own organisation I’d love to hear from you and swap notes. Or if you’re interested in social purpose more broadly, or know of a good book I should read, please do get in touch. It would be great to hear from you. After all, when it comes to doing good, we’re all in this together.