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It’s easy for large corporations to pay lip service to social initiatives. It’s easy for a rich business to throw money at charities. What’s not so easy is for a company to put its heart into the causes it supports.

In the technology world, more and more companies – from giants like Google and Facebook to young start-ups – are realising that their passion for doing good will define the value of what they do.

This philosophy was neatly summed up this week at the world’s biggest conference on accounting software, the Sage Summit in Chicago.

“Today people expect the businesses they buy from and the companies they work for to have a higher purpose,” said Marc Scheipe, president of Sage North America. “To be truly productive, you need to engage the heads, hearts and hands of your colleagues. We are not only about creating great products, we are changing lives.”

This was an overriding theme of the summit, reinforced among other by two movie stars wearing their start-up hats. Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow, more recently founder of digital lifestyle publication Goop, and multiple Golden Globe nominee Zooey Deschanel, founder of lifestyle website Hellogiggles, took part in a session titled “The Giving Economy”. Paltrow told the audience the theme was core to her business: “We’re devoted to making every choice count.”

Sage reinforced the message with a keynote session featuring six participants in the Invictus Games, a paralympic-style international sporting tournament for injured servicemen and women. Sage is the main sponsor of the Games through the Sage Foundation, founded last year and headed by South Africa’s Ivan Epstein, CEO of Sage for Africa, Australia, Middle East and Asia.

This year, the Foundation unveiled a training and mentoring programme to help military veterans make the transition back into civilian life. It also pledged $1-million to a worldwide community-led fundraising project, and presented a $50 000 donation to a local Chicago project, Brave Initiatives, which empowers young women through coding and community action.

Mike Goody , a member of Team UK at this year’s Invictus Games, said it made a significant difference when a business put its heart into a cause.

“When someone has not got their heart and soul and mind in it, and just gives hand-outs, they’re not working at it,” he said in a media briefing after the keynote. “The best things in life are what you work at it. When you can see their heart and soul is in what they do, it’s like in the military when we all look out for each other. When you are assisted by someone who is passionate, you will go to hell and back to do what you can for that person.”

Scheipe went as far as to suggest that the giving economy was not just a good thing, but essential to business.

“Anything other than giving back is not sustainable,” he said. “Otherwise it’s a short-term focus and, whether its customers or colleagues, people will see right through it. When someone does care, it comes through in spades. That kind of mentality is long-term thinking.”

Even Virgin boss Richard Branson, who shared the opening keynote session with Sage CEO Stephen Kelly, offered a lesson in giving: “If every company adopts one problem, we can get on top of all the problems in the world. We can’t leave it to politicians. Let your staff help you decide which project you should adopt.”

  • This column first appeared in Business Times in the Sunday Times on 31 July 2016.

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