“There is one and only one social responsibility of business,” noted famed economist Milton Friedman in 1962: “to increase its profits."
But, was Friedman right?
Not to most U.S. adults.
Americans believe that companies should have a mission that goes beyond the money—one that has a positive impact on world hunger, job creation and education, according to the latest Harris Poll data.
The market research firm along with Finn Partners, a marketing communications company, surveyed more than 2,000 adults and identified the social issues that Americans want companies to address.
What was the most pressing issue on the minds of Americans?
Data privacy, according to 65 percent of survey participants.
The second most important issue that adults thought the private sector should do something about was healthcare (61 percent), followed by supporting military veterans (59 percent).
"When it comes down to it, people want companies to address the issues that they struggle with every day like safety, security and health," said Amy Terpeluk, a senior partner at Finn Partners. "Companies that address these needs can build their reputation and in turn strengthen their business."
How well are major companies meeting these social needs?
There's room for improvement.
The area that companies are having the most positive impact on is job creation, according to 24 percent of adults.
And 22 percent said that companies are making a very positive impact on supporting veterans with just 18 percent saying they thought education was in a good spot. Less than 18 percent of people thought that jobs were adequately making a difference when it comes to issues like hunger, sexual harassment, LGBTQ rights and immigration.
The findings suggest that there is a wide gap between the areas that people say need improvement and the areas they say are having a positive impact.
"We know that companies are making big financial investments to help public perception, but perhaps that message isn’t getting out," said Wendy Salomon, Managing Director of Corporate Reputation at The Harris Poll. "If you're a company that's operating on a national scale—if your values are not coming across to the public then this is something you should think about."
The researchers used the data to develop an index that scores and ranks the most visible companies according to the public’s perception of their work to drive positive change. Called the Societal Return on Investment (SROI) Index, it shows the relationship between a corporation's perceived social contribution and its bottom line.
Which companies performed the best?
Those in the grocery and technology industries tended to score better because people give more credit to businesses they come in contact with more often, Salomon said "These companies evoke comfort. They're part of your daily regime," she said.
The highest scorers among America's most visible companies were Wegmans, a privately held American supermarket; Patagonia, a designer of outdoor clothing; and UPS, a multinational package delivery company.
Others in the top 10 include Aldi, Microsoft, Lowes, Tesla Motors, and Kellogg Company.
The following broke the top 20: Amazon.com, Whole Foods Market, IBM, and Berkshire Hathaway.
How can a company improve its social score?
"It’s not about this galvanizing to take a stance in the moment," said Salomon. "It has to be systemic. It's about using employees to bring about positive change for decades."
Follow Dalvin Brown on Twitter: @Dalvin_Brown