Share value is being impacted by a corporation’s social purpose, however, the degree of impact is directly related to the alignment of business – synonymous herein to “corporate purpose” – and social purpose. To better understand the risks of not aligning both, we spoke with Melissa Adams. Adams serves as Chief Corporate Social Responsibility Officer at WGL Holdings, Inc., where she formulates strategy and programs for the benefit of the company and the communities WGL serves.
She works in collaboration with the Board and executive leadership to implement initiatives across all businesses that actualize corporate values, and amplify brand positioning and business development while reducing risk. Adams’s key areas of focus include:
- Minimizing the effects the business has on the environment – through both internal operations and customer facing programs;
- Promoting social objectives through philanthropy, volunteerism and impact investing;
- Advancing social equity and sustainability through hiring, training and procurement practices; and
- Leading corporate community engagement.
Her portfolio also includes managing our corporate real estate portfolio, including planning, lease negotiation and tenant and community relations for over 26 different corporate facility sites.
Christopher P. Skroupa: What does it mean to align corporate and social purpose?
Melissa Adams: I think it comes down to understanding your business’s true purpose; which in our case is “to make energy surprisingly easy” for our customers. As a provider of diverse energy answers, we offer a wide range including natural gas-, wind- and solar-generated electricity, on-site fuel cells, energy efficiency measures, Carbon Offsets and more. Our purpose is to help customers meet their specific energy needs through the most affordable, safe, reliable and sustainable form of energy.
Coming from that perspective, one could argue that our business purpose and our social purpose really are one and the same. If you look at sustainable development goal (SDG) number 7 – ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all – that is almost indistinguishable, and inseparable, from business within our geographical reach. We use that lens to bring focus to our CSR programming.
Skroupa: In regards to monetary, time and effort, what is the cost of alignment?
Adams: If your corporate responsibility efforts are separate or ancillary to your business, they’re not really part of the business. So, I’ll counter that question by asking, “what is the cost of not being aligned?” Let me give an example of what I mean by alignment. One of our sustainability targets is to help our customers save energy equivalent to 18 million metric tons of CO2 emissions between 2015 and 2025. That target reflects the business goals to increase the number of customers that are taking advantage of our renewably-generated electricity offers, improving energy efficiency for our customers and so on. In addition, if your programming can’t be readily identified with your business purpose, it doesn’t resonate with your management, customers, regulators, suppliers and other stakeholders.
Skroupa: How does aligning corporate and social purpose generate value, and what kind of value is generated?
Adams: We look at our business not as selling one product or service, but rather as working with our customers and communities to find the best solutions to meet their needs – which makes us a partner rather than “just” a supplier. Where we provide gas to a commercial establishment, we can provide compressed natural gas (CNG) to support a low carbon fleet, or add on-site generation through fuel cells to enhance reliability and sustainability. And we can provide them with solar panels and battery storage to meet more of their energy needs.
We see our role as being the preferred provider of essential energy for the homes where people live, as well as hospitals, schools, offices, factories and farms. We keep those places safe, comfortable and productive. By addresses energy poverty and social equity through programming, we then extend that partnership to our communities. This supports the legitimacy of our social license to operate.
For example, more than 30 years ago we launched The Washington Area Fuel Fund that has provided $26 million dollars in critical winter heating assistance to more than 286,000 people. The fund – which is administered by caseworkers at The Salvation Army – will pay any heating bill, whether it’s electric, oil, wood, propane or gas. To raise awareness of the consequences of energy poverty – which tremendously affects the health, safety and the overall well-being of area residents – we built an “ice house’’ in a heavily trafficked area of the city. Executives, vendors and local celebrities took turns sitting in the ice house to demonstrate the hardship faced by those unable to afford heat. The three-day event raised awareness through mainstream and social media coverage and, more importantly, generated over $125,000 that will help 200 additional local families heat their homes this winter.
We believe it is our responsibility to expand our role as energy partner to that of community partner. For example, our core subsidiary, Washington Gas, which has served the region for 170 years, has a robust supplier diversity program that resulted in 25.7 percent of procurement spend being sourced with woman-owned, minority and veteran disabled businesses in the last fiscal year. These programs support a competitive, open marketplace that benefits our customers while providing economic opportunities for our communities.
Another large part of our efforts is in the area of employee volunteerism. We host 50 events a year; which means any given week you can find our employees in the community giving back. The efforts are employee-directed and most initiatives are related to our business. Events like Day of Weatherization offers a direct ‘tie-in’ to our business, because on that day our teams visit low-income houses to install weather stripping, caulk, sink aerators and, in some cases, solar panels to save energy and lower customer bills.
Skroupa: Is there a one-size-fits-all standard to reach alignment?
Adams: How a company reaches alignment is as varied as the goods or services they provide. Many companies give back rather than weave aligned, transparent programming into their everyday actions.
Our sustainability targets include having our fleet and facilities be carbon neutral by 2025. This aligns with our business because we are using our own products, services and expertise to do it. This demonstrates that we can do it for our customers. When we cut those emissions 74 percent, obviously, that’s a good ‘reputation’ or ‘brand’ message, but it is also a good message for our customer who want to cut their footprints.
Others may be motivated by energy savings, and I already mentioned that target – reducing customer GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions by 18 million tons. Whether they are motivated to cut their costs or their emissions – or both – we are helping them.
Another target we set is to reduce the emissions intensity of the gas we deliver. We are doing this by updating and modernizing our pipelines, as well as leak detection devices throughout our service areas. This will not only reduce emissions, it will improve safety and unplanned service interruptions.
Skroupa: Do you have any final thoughts for the Forbes audience?
Adams: I encourage readers to think about what your business does and how you do it. What are your customer and/or community needs and how is your business uniquely positioned to meet those needs? What value do customers place on your products and services? How do they feel about the way you provide those things? Is the ‘brand promise’ you offer a transaction, or is it a partnership? How do your suppliers, regulators and other stakeholders feel about you? What is that immediate reaction people have – based on their experience with you – when they hear your name, or see your logo? Your CSR programming can help shape your business, as well as be shaped by the answers to these questions.
When you look at your business that way, your social purpose and your business purpose become one. And from there, figuring out your most effective corporate responsibility efforts becomes almost second nature.
Melissa Adams will be speaking on a panel entitled Employee Engagement: Aligning Corporate and Social Purpose at the Corporate Social Responsibility 4.0 program in San Francisco, CA on March 1.
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