Over the past three years, the trust of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) has declined. In 2017, the Edelman Trust Barometer unveiled that only 53% of respondents showed trust in NGOs, a notable decline from a peak of 66% trust in 2014.1 NGOs were not alone in this decline; levels of trust fell across all four institutions – NGOs, businesses, media, and government. Perhaps that is because, despite the reductions in perceived credibility, many companies continue to align themselves with NGOs because they are established organizations with clear processes, head-counts, rules, and regulations.
Whereas corporations might still be inclined to put reliance on organizations, individuals are seeking one another. In the Edelman study, 60% of respondents said they trusted “a person like [them]self.” Not surprisingly, we’re seeing people movements growing in number, reach, and impact.
Across multiple nations, people are banding together to raise their voices on issues impacting their lives. In many cases, the success of these viral grassroots movements does not predicate on policy change or authoritarian action. It’s coming from a desire to build awareness of issues and recognition for people power through collective peaceful action. And that has been an extremely effective goal.
Add social media to the magnetic pull of shared human values and goals, and people movements (both as boots on the ground and online) have almost limitless potential to form and get noticed. In the past few years alone, people have banded together to create massive cultural, social, and economic level changes. For example, following the decision to recognize same-sex marriages nationwide, more than 26 million Facebook users took advantage of the rainbow filters for their profile pictures. Likewise, Twitter users added #LoveWins to their tweets 284,730 times within the first hour following the decision.2
Regardless of whether they happen online or on the streets, these movements are influencing beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. And when we recognize that fundamental ideologies can change through the collective efforts of committed people, it raises the question of what’s most important for authentic change.3 It has begun to prompt companies to rethink the ways they align, invest, and collaborate in their endeavors to effect positive changes - starting from within their organizations.4
Socially responsible investments have gained significant ground over the past few years, and today represent more than $8 trillion worth of investment.5
What if instead of turning outward to partner with questionable NGO’s, corporations looked to their people? What if positive change could be integrated into the culture of the organization? What if companies gave their people the latitude and empowerment to join the social movement – for the good of the community and the company?
Food for thought
- Live out core values. We know there is a strong correlation between positive social/environmental impact and financial performance. To be credible and impactful, leaders must reflect the values they want their people to espouse. In Barre3, we always say, “You can't give generously to others if you don't first give generously to yourself.” Many CEOs take a stance on key political issues that resonate with their consumer and investor bases but ignore important social, environmental, and governance issues within their own companies. That’s a problem, particularly in light of the insistence on transparency. Customers often choose whether or not to trust based on whether the actions of organizations and leaders reflect core values they can believe in and support.
- Be human. Leaders are people. They make mistakes. In a world of increased exposure, honesty, vulnerability, and ownership are key. It is okay to err. It’s not okay to lack a perspective, conviction, or the ability to learn from the mistake. Leaders must take a stance on the difficult issues, even at risk of being wrong.
- This is business. There’s a measurable cost in letting an issue fester. Leaders must have a pulse on whether their employees are struggling to feel like they belong in the fabric of their company. Issues like sexual harassment, immigration reform, or Black Lives Matter can be divisive, and the cost to productivity can be high. Every year, for example, companies lose between $450 and $550 billion due to issues related to sexual harassment.6 Ensuring your employees feel a sense of “belonging” is a strategy for business sustainability.
Whether you believe established NGOs, people movements, or some measure of the two represents the right way to drive social change, for companies and their leaders, one thing is undeniable. Companies must put forth values, they must invest in their people, and they must live out the social/cultural/moral positions they preach. It’s more than allocating do-good investment dollars and building brand value. It’s about seeing their opportunity to “be the change they want to see in the world.”
It’s time to consider whether your investments in NGOs and your people align with your values.
 2015’s Top 5 Social Activism Campaigns: #BlackLivesMatter, #LoveWins & More, Adweek, December 2015
 The Unseen Effectiveness of Social Movements and Protests, Mobilizingideas, January 2015
 Survey: People’s Trust Has Declined in Business, Media, Government, and NGOs, HBR, January 2017
 Business is having a 'morality moment'. It could become a movement, World Economic Forum, February 2018
 How business leaders can stand in support of the #MeToo movement, CNBC, January 2018