Mission-driven businesses – a first look


The emergence of mission-led businesses

What is the mission of your business ? The word “mission” is a buzz word that has been around for decades in relation to the business world. Can a business really have a mission? The UK government is getting interested in “Mission-led businesses, stating “new businesses are emerging that seek to achieve social as well as financial impact.” The World Economic Forum pointed to the benefit to both society and the “bottom line” of mission-led businesses. They also offer some examples:

“There are examples from all over the world. Warby Parker, a manufacturer in the United States, distributes a pair of glasses in a developing country for each pair it sells in a developed one. Natura, a Brazilian beauty and cosmetics firm, is working to become carbon neutral. Bridges International Academies, founded in Kenya, educate underprivileged children across Africa and Asia. They’re one of the largest chains of primary schools in the world.”

Defining mission

So what does “mission” mean? A mission is actually a collection of things all designed and operated in accordance with a purpose. There are still missions around the world, especially in the development field. The word, of course, also referred to (and still does) religious missions. There are also missions into space ! All have an established sense of purpose.

To be a mission that purpose has to be aspirational, ambitious, aimed at realising some values in practice. When that happens in practice, the people involved are behaving in a “missionary” way.

Sometimes that mission is imagined in advance. At that stage it is just a vision. It becomes a mission when we get to work, when we put that vision into practical action.

When the mission needs to change

If the vision is too fixed and the world around the mission changes, the mission may begin to fail. If the mission is formed out of a wish to influence the world around it, then it has to be adaptive to remain relevant. Missions evolve and fail to adapt at their peril.

Not all missions need to do that, especially if they don’t have a social element to their purpose. Missions can be very simple and may not need to change if the environment is fairly static.

I could go on a mission to withdraw from the world. yet even that mission may be thwarted if the mountain cave I retreat to is destroyed by an earthquake or turned into a mine!

Missions are open systems in dynamic environments

So, most missions are open systems in changing environments, because that is how our world is.

Missions need to evolve to survive, be realised and to stay needed and relevant. Many missions fail because they don’t respond through innovation and adaptation to the dynamic environment around them. This is a major cause of failure in small businesses.

The elements of missions

Missions are made up of people, vision, values, resources, energy, knowledge, experience and methods.

We form our mission out of these elements. A mission can be started –  initiated by an individual, a group and even a much larger community.

But often a mission is a reaction to a wish to affect something in the world.

Missions often include:

– a vision of where we are trying to get to as a business 

– a picture of the future that describes a desired state

– a passionate statement about the world – past, present and future

– ambitions for our products, services and our “footprint” in the world – ethical, social, environmental, cultural and economic

– clear goals and targets for achieving our purpose

– a statement of what we are restless to change or address in the world

– ground-breaking ideas or thoughts, suggestions and possibilities about technology and the present and future potential of aspects of the world

Moral or Social missions

Moral missions are on a line of “good and evil” or “right and wrong, also “fair and unfair” and are aimed at transforming the world, or part of it, towards a set of moral values.

For example: To improve the environment, to increase freedom, to improve health. But there are other missions that aren’t about “doing the good” for society but may be focused on personal ambition, winning, and even harming others.

Mission-led businesses

A mission-led business is not necessarily a good, well-motived business. In the commercial realm, a business may have a complex mission – it may have a core mission and other missions that relate more or less to it. A business may have profit maximisation as its mission  (most do) but also a secondary mission to benefit humanity through its products. Increasingly new businesses run by “millennials” are putting social mission at least on s par with economic mission.

But that secondary mission can create a kind of cognitive dissonance (a gap between where we want to be and where are are) if it means we will have to compromise, and profit optimise instead of maximise. Of course innovation is also a mission and this can be pursued I order to find ways to both benefit humanity AND maximise profits. However, we may end up having to adjust our mission – either by compromising on how much we benefit humanity or whether we can only optimise and not maximise our profits

Three types of mission-led business

Mission-led businesses can take different forms. There are at least three basic types:

1. Primary social mission-led businesses

A mission-led business can have a social mission as its primary underlying purpose. For example, its mission can be to help homes become carbon neutral. It’s economic mission is put the the service of that mission. Profit, at least in part, is prioritised towards realising that mission. Wealth arises from passion and commitment to the mission. Profit and revenue become a side-effect of realising a  relevant social mission in the world. Many of these businesses take the legal form of a charity or a Community interest company. But not all. Some don’t even realise how socially mission-led they are!

2. Profit-driven social mission-led businesses

A mission-led business may also have a very different mission. It might simply be a fast food restaurant. It’s primary mission might be to maximise profits delivering that product or service. But it might also be led by a secondary mission to be carbon neutral. Here the secondary mission can be more or less prioritised; it can be seen as more or less important. If the secondary mission is strong, or even as strong as the primary one, then the business will focus all of its creative energy on delivering and innovating its product in ways that achieve its secondary mission. If the secondary mission is less important than the primary one, then compromises arise. The business may dilute its mission to be carbon neutral in favour of profit maximisation. Here tensions clearly arise.

3. Social mission opportunist businesses

There is also a third type of mission-led business. here the primary mission and secondary mission are equal. The business might genuinely be committed to providing healthy food, for example. But this is really a business opportunity. It’s there to maximise its returns. The business is an opportunist and the social mission is really just a business opportunity for earning money. Many businesses are like this. Some fake the mission as an advertising strategy. Others start with good intentions but then sell to the highest bidder. Others are simply not very open or conscious as businesses and kid themselves about their motives.

In all three cases there are different tensions between social and financial missions.

The tensions between economic and social missions

Mission-driven businesses have to face these tensions all the time, if their mission is both moral and commercial. There is a tension that requires creativity and dialogue here, that is often lacking in many businesses.

A business driven by a social or moral mission needs to be open to adapting its commercial choices to its moral motives and realities. The moral/social and financial/economic missions will have to marry up.

In other words, if it wants to do good, it may have to accept that comes at a financial cost.

Yet also it can develop a third mission to be an ever-improving innovator in order to find ways of being agile, creative and smart in its ability to authentically achieve its financial mission AND achieve its moral mission.

So, a key challenge for mission-led businesses is to openly explore into,  and dialogue around the tensions between the social and commercial “sub-missions”. Indeed, discernment and the ability to find balance here is going to be a critical skill for leaders and founders of mission-led businesses.

The Danger of Collusion

Here there’s a danger: Collusion can kick in. If, in reality, the economic pressures are greater than the social ones, (for example, if there is pressure from shareholders to maximise short term returns), employees can collude and the business can become biased towards the financial bottom line at the expense of its social bottom line, though its rhetoric may still claim its mission is primarily prioritised in the moral realm. That business  becomes two-faced.

The collusion occurs when leaders, employees, suppliers and other stakeholders play along, often from fear of losing their jobs, losing contacts, or losing influence, and even being harmed in other ways. Breaking that collusion is key if the mission-driven business wants to maintain its integrity.

The Role of Integrity

Integrity is what holds the mission or missions together. Collusion can end up as a more or less weak or strong glue that ‘band aids’  that mission together as it loses integrity.  Those committed to the social mission complain, collude or leave.

Integrity is only truly maintained through:

– evidence-based decision making rather than opinions based on power and influence rather than reality

– honesty and openness, including challenge being welcomed when anyone believes the mission is changing or being compromised 

– creativity and innovation where the business proactively looks to challenge its mission(s) in order to keep everything relevant, real, and responsive

Without integrity, a mission-driven business can degrade. Motivation can fall, and the business can even become “outed” as hypocritical, deceptive or simply weak or dishonest. Integrity is the clear and shared connection between the mission(s) of a business and its practice in the public eye. That public eye is both internal in terms of employees, and external in terms of customers, suppliers and other stakeholders.

The Payoff and the outcomes

When missions are shared openly, assessed and measured transparently, avoid collusion and fear to challenge, when they are innovated and open to internal and external dialogue and scrutiny, they can be relevant, purposeful and motivating.

They can energise people, groups and communities and enable the business to be profitable and purposeful beyond profit.

Mission-driven businesses need integrity, and to be able to innovate and adapt, not only their products and services, but also the mission itself.

When it works, society benefits, the business benefits. Mission creates satisfaction, and a sense of purpose and achievement.


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Paul Levy is a writer, facilitator and senior researcher at the University of Brighton. he is the author of the book, Digital Inferno. Paul is the founder of the mission-led businesses CATS3000 and FringeReview


One Comment Add yours

  1. Pete Burden says:


    Nice post. (And happy birthday!).

    I like the emphasis you give to collusion and integrity. Maintaining a sense of Mission is difficult in our ever shifting experience of the world.

    A different way to see the ‘competing’ or ‘in tension’ priorities, is to consider how they might support one another.

    For example, if one aim is to generate profit, it may be that this is the best way to fund growth in impact. How many customers can we reach? How many pairs of glasses can we afford to give away?So rather than being in tension, the two ains are aligned.

    One meaning of ‘Conscious Business’ is that people in the business are ‘aware’, and so is the business itself (if that is possible).

    This might inclufe sufficient awareness of all these competing motives, so that they can be balanced and integrated in the moment. So, for example, the business seeks profit, while also knowing this will support the ‘Mission’.

    A good way to explore this is to look at the Purpose part of Mission. And that can be done by asking ‘why?’. Eg why are we chasing profit in this particular deal.

    There is, in my view, never any pat or easy answer. But asking the question in each specific case can, I believe, help inform our next steps forward.


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