Measuring the Impact of Purpose

balled up string smooths out into a path for someone to walk on. A lightbulb at end of string to symbolize and idea or purpose.

Purpose can mean many different things. And in today’s PR industry, many are looking to simply define exactly what the impact of purpose means. 

Measurement and data unlock the strategies for the trajectory of many campaigns and missions—before, during and after—to determine the effectiveness of those strategies. 

When it comes to measuring the outcomes of purpose communications, things can get a little cloudy. Thankfully, many in the industry are looking to elevate the importance of purpose and measurement. Books, research and entire programs are now emerging to pinpoint standards for professionals to consider. 

PRNEWS talked to several standouts in purpose communications to see how they are addressing measurement. 

Patagonia Embraces Philosophy

Patagonia is often one of the first organizations that comes to mind when thinking of purpose-driven brands, and they take that quite seriously. Every step the company takes considers environmental and societal aspects. Examples of this include Patagonia’s commitment to giving 1 percent of annual sales to grassroots environmental organizations, switching to all organic cotton, and becoming one of the first retailers to bow out of Black Friday.  

Vincent Stanley, currently Patagonia's Director of Philosophy—a unique leadership title, but one that the company takes very seriously released an industry-changing book ten years ago with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, called “The Responsible Company.” The duo has just released an update, “The Future of the Responsible Company,” which tackles a lot of the questions organizations may have when it comes to becoming more purpose-driven. 

For Stanley, the answer to how to measure purpose is about not measuring purpose. 

“We don’t measure “performance against purpose” at Patagonia, but we do measure performance against activities that exemplify/fulfill our purpose,” he says.  

Stanley says it’s about measuring the success of actions, not intentions, which is why you can’t measure the success of purpose without identifying the actions that realize it.

“Measuring purpose would always entail a two-step or three-step process,” he suggests. “First, define your purpose. Second, what do you want to do that realizes your purpose? Then, after a while, look back: how much were you able to do? Where did you fall short and why (no excuses)? What next?” 

The new book provides an extensive appendix for those looking for a rubric to engage in purpose and set company standards, and it can be a good place for organizations to start when identifying actionable elements. Checklists of actions include responsibility to workers, responsibility to the community, and responsibility to shareholders, among others. 

“They are themed around stakeholder concerns, but I think an enterprise could draw from this list to identify activities that fulfill purpose,” Stanley says.

Stanley also suggests B Lab’s B Impact Assessment for those looking to identify some actionable standards. 

Developing an Industry Standard Through Research

Joe Stabb, Assistant Professor of Practice at the Tombras School of Advertising & Public Relations, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Faculty Director of the Purpose Project, says a lot of measuring purpose depends on the key performance indicators put in place at the beginning of a campaign, as well as the length of time in which the results are measured. 

“Some purpose-driven campaigns or initiatives could take years to show a measurable impact, and well-defined objectives help practitioners to stay focused and on track,” Stabb says. 

And while there is no current industry standard or guide to follow for measuring the results of purpose, Stabb says communicators can look to some tertiary industries for reporting examples. 

“There are globally accepted standards for reporting sustainability and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals, as well as guidelines for reporting standards related to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG),” he notes.  

And because there is no standardized reporting for the PR industry, the University is looking at research to change that. 

Stabb and the University see purpose emerging as one of the most important goals for communicators. So much so that the school’s development of the Purpose Project will offer research opportunities and grants to fund purpose-driven research. Some of that academic research will also result in suggestions for measuring and reading data, connecting practitioners with best practices for “meaningful, purpose-driven work.”

“[Purpose Project research could] help global communications professionals and purpose-driven organizations to better measure their impact related to the initiatives they choose to align with and support,” he says. 

Stabb also notes that there will be many opportunities for academics as well as industry professionals to get involved and share learnings.

“We are currently seeking purpose experts to be on the advisory board for the UT Purpose Project,” he says. “There will be opportunities to be involved in research, education and presentations.”

Cross-Organizational Measurement

Lana McGilvray, co-founder and CEO of Purpose Worldwide, sees many organizations overlooking a fundamental factor when looking to measure the impact of purpose. 

“It cannot be a single measure,” she says. “It must be measured across the organization to get a real and meaningful read.”

She cites a great example of this through the recent roll-out of DEI trade organization BRIDGE's IMAX (Inclusion Maturity Assessment and Capability Building Framework) program, which provides brands with a measurable way to maximize inclusion across their organizations.

“IMAX is helping purpose-driven organizations committed to inclusivity to measure it across the enterprise,” McGilvray says. “Doing so provides brands with a score derived from measurement in different arenas.”

The program reveals 72 business practices across five dimensions of the workplace and marketplace and measures inclusion maturity at both the brand and company level, giving leaders a concrete assessment of where the gaps exist, a process to prioritize the gaps and the capabilities required to bridge the gaps. IMAX is currently being piloted by Campbell's, Sephora and others.

Some criteria include looking at DEI language in brand guidelines or having adequate representation on the marketing team. 

“Not surprisingly, no two brand scores are the same, and the measurements naturally show highs in some areas and gaps in others,” she says. “For instance, a brand may be somewhat inclusive in some functions but very behind in media representation.” 

McGilvray says there is power in cross-organizational purpose-driven measurement. 

“The reason this type of cross-organizational measurement is so meaningful is it empowers everyone in the organization to "see" how the organization is doing as a whole, and to work together to advance in their journey. It unites!”

Showing Purpose’s ROI

McGilvray also notes that showcasing purpose ROI is a way to avoid a shutdown of DEI or purpose-driven programs, as some organizations are looking to cut costs. 

“It can be easy to say, "We need to shut down that purpose initiative now and focus on business," for example, she says. “When we define an organization's purpose, and are able to show how it is paying off across functions and the whole, it becomes more like the financial conversations we have within companies. That kind of ROI thinking is golden. Shift it to something like, "Listen, this quarter, Purpose paid off big in employee retention and sales, but it's lagging in terms of recruiting. We need to work on that.”

When it comes to measuring the impact of purpose, its impact is priceless.

Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal