Purpose//

How Can Purpose Turn Potential Into Performance?

Visionary organizations are honing in on a new, true north star: purpose.

For decades, business success has been defined by profit. But today’s world is too unpredictable and too competitive for firms to navigate by profits alone. Growth for growth’s sake just won’t cut it. Visionary organizations are honing in on a new, true north star: purpose.

At EY Beacon Institute, we look closely at major firms that have succeeded in putting purpose at the core of their business to distill the essence of what they do. Why do employees want to come to work every day? What keeps executives up at night? In their share of time on this planet, what legacy will the company leave for their customers, their community, and society?

We’ve found that today’s most successful firms are checking the box on profits and shareholder returns – those are basic operating requirements in a market economy, after all – but also a range of other boxes. Connecting with customers? Check. Investing in employees? Check. Protecting the planet? Check. Having a positive impact on society? Check.

Over the past few months, we’ve taken a close look at Mastercard to see which boxes this 52-year-old firm has checked as it reinvents itself in pursuit of a “world beyond cash.” Mastercard is the third installment in EY Beacon’s ‘People of Purpose’ series, which equips and inspires businesses to navigate today’s Transformative Age.

Under the leadership of CEO Ajay Banga, since 2010 Mastercard has sought to grow its business by creating sustainable and equitable economic growth and promoting financial inclusion. The company is particularly focused on bringing into the digital era the 83% of global transactions still conducted in cash.

Shamina Singh, president of Mastercard’s Center for Inclusive Growth, a philanthropic hub dedicated to achieving fair and lasting economic growth for all segments of societies, paints a clear picture of why that transition is so important. “Dealing in a cash economy means that you are not allowed, or you don’t have the ability, to securely save and transact,” Singh says. That means “you don’t have the economic independence that you need in order to grow,” whether it’s a personal savings account or a small business.

Singh has seen how digital payments can transform the lives of some of the world’s vulnerable people. Take, for example, a woman living in a refugee camp who’s receiving aid in the form of cash and has to walk a half-mile each way to receive it. “You can only imagine what she’s facing on the walk back,” Singh says. “If that same woman is getting her aid digitally and is allowed to transact in a grocery store like everybody else, with the dignity of choice, her whole life is different.”

Cash also has huge hidden costs in terms of both the resources required to print, store and transport it, and the difficulty it creates in taxing shadow activities. Because cash is hard to trace, it can facilitate crime within the informal economy.

Today, Mastercard works with governments, NGOs and other businesses around the world to bring banking services to the 1.7 billion people who are still unbanked and connect more people to the vital networks that power the modern economy. The firm aims to bring 500 million people, into the formal economy by 2020.

Just as critical as providing access to financial services is driving usage of them. Access alone isn’t enough to improve lives. It’s only when people actually use financial services that they begin to see the benefits. That’s why Mastercard followed the 500 million consumer target with a commitment to reach 40 million micro and small merchants around the world, to drive usage where the newly included consumers are most likely to shop.

At Mastercard, Sami Lahoud leads a team focused on increasing digital payment acceptance, particularly at small merchants. As Lahoud told us, “if you get [the excluded and the unbanked] through electronic payments into the world of inclusion, you give them the means that they need to grow.”

But financial inclusion is about more than just banking and credit – it’s also about security and, at its core, human dignity.

Nina Nieuwoudt, who has led Mastercard’s global product development for public sector and humanitarian solutions, knows how impactful this support can be. “The mere fact that people had a card made them feel as if they were somebody,” she says. “We go beyond just the financial impact to them. It is also about dignity and the respect for another human life.”

Mastercard is just one of many companies for whom creating business value and improving society go hand-in-hand. In our research, EY Beacon Institute has found that companies that harness their existing core strengths to make money and make the world a better place are best equipped to navigate the challenges of the 21st century. Last year, when we surveyed nearly 1,500 business leaders from around the world, we found that nearly three out of four said a well-integrated purpose that goes beyond short-term profits helps them navigate today’s disrupted environment.

Along the spectrum of commerce today, there’s often a tension between those at one end who view the business of business solely as making money, and those at the other who see social responsibility as the only reason for existing. That tension can lead to accusations of “greenwashing” from one side and naiveté from the other, creating a stigma that organizations should just stay in their lane.

But that’s an old paradigm from an old world with an old set of rules – and those rules don’t apply anymore. As Mastercard shows, there’s plenty of space for firms to wear suits and sandals. It’s not easy, of course. Nieuwoudt is the first to acknowledge that upsetting the status quo requires persistence. “There’s many a naysayer out there,” she says, “and there is often an awkward moment where people go, ‘Oh, so you make money out of this?’” But, she adds, “I don’t ever feel as if I need to shy away from that question. I’m building a sustainable business model. That’s what I’m doing.”

While many people still assume a trade-off between profit and purpose, Mastercard is unapologetic that its efforts to create inclusive growth are a core part of its business model. “Our competitive advantage is making sure that we not only connect people through financial inclusion, but that we also create inclusive growth, so that more people can engage in the formal economy,” Singh says. “That’s a business proposition as much as it is a social impact proposition.”

The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.

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