Blazing New Trails in Public Accounting through Social Entrepreneurship

by J. C. Blewitt, PhD, and Rebecca Kinzinger, CGFM | Jun 17, 2022

pa-cpa-journal-blazing-new-trails-in-public-accounting-through-social-entrepreneurshipGone are the days when stakeholders only challenged organizations to raise bottom-line returns to owners and investors. Many of today’s stakeholders want businesses to be successful in profit, but also demand a response to societal issues. They are embracing the idea that a business can “do well by doing good.”1 

This phenomenon is spreading as businesses not only experience pride that they are adding to society but also have noticed a spillover effect of gaining loyal customers and quality employees. One of the most popular methods that organizations are implementing is social entrepreneurship, a relatively new concept that extends the characteristics of general entrepreneurship to philanthropic efforts. 

Social entrepreneurship efforts tend to be industry-specific and lean on professional practices to enact valuable changes. This feature weighs how public accounting can adopt social entrepreneurship through an analysis of two important industry stakeholders: firms and millennials. 

Background

Social entrepreneurship mobilizes ideas, capacities, resources, and arrangements required for sustainable social transformations.2 Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, is a pioneer of the social entrepreneurship phenomenon. Yunus founded Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which gives the disenfranchised and poor an opportunity to access loans and financial support in order to emerge out of poverty. Historically, people who have no access to loans and no way to establish credit rarely had a chance to help themselves beyond charity. Yunus’s outside-the-lines approach to poverty illustrates what social entrepreneurship stands for: seeking to empower, not just assist. 

Many companies have implemented the idea of social entrepreneurship into their business models to not only help the world around them, but also to meet the growing desire of employees to be socially active – particularly the millennial generation and those following. Thus, more organizational stakeholders are advocating for some form of social entrepreneurship. 

Companies of all sizes have developed a range of systems and causes to promote. Adobe Systems, for example, has set a goal of carbon neutrality and reducing landfill-bound waste. The Walt Disney Company has a program called VoluntEARS that encourages employees to devote time to helping charities and other socially supportive organizations. The effort logged 3.4 million hours of service. Cisco has programs where the company uses its technology to help underprivileged communities grow through education and disaster relief. Cisco’s goal is to make a positive change for 1 billion people by 2025. 

Social entrepreneurship also can lead to positive outcomes within an organization. According to a recent study, employees rank a company’s involvement in the community as the second-highest factor to make them stay with that company. Another critical factor is a company’s reputation with regard to social responsibility.3 When it comes to consumers, Nielson’s annual Global Corporate Sustainability Report found that “66% of consumers are willing to spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand.”4 A sustainable brand is one in which the company shows it values the environment or some other social factor. When stakeholders have increased satisfaction with an organization, the organization itself benefits: employees stay at the company, consumers continue to purchase from them, and the positive image sets an industry benchmark example to others.  

It also cannot be discounted that when working toward a social good people become visionaries. They become more aware of what is going on in the world around them, and they are more accountable because they acknowledge they can positively influence a tangible objective. Innovative approaches to social issues will ultimately help address problems surrounding sustainability, social responsibility, and other emergent problems.

In Public Accounting

Many accounting firms are beginning to engage in social entrepreneurship: locally, regionally, and internationally. A common goal at all three of these levels is addressing social change to empower the people and businesses around them. For example, Ernst & Young (EY) has programs devoted to empowering entrepreneurs for positive social change. It offers awards and incentives to help these programs reach their goals. Many EY employees serve as coaches for the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, which teaches lower-income teens about the risks of dropping out of school on how to pursue entrepreneurial goals.5 

Deloitte, too, offers programs in terms of social entrepreneurship and social impact. One of its main beliefs is that businesses help shape society.6 Deloitte’s Monitor Institute helps organizations focused on social change make financial-based decisions to further their causes. Deloitte is using its expertise in accounting to advise groups in their specific efforts toward social change. For example, Deloitte might provide tax advice or consult management on strategic decisions. Small, social-based businesses and nonprofits usually operate with tight or restricted budgets. If large, internationally acclaimed accounting and consulting businesses are willing to lend a hand, it can catapult an organization’s efforts and give confidence to their financial decisions. Medium and smaller firms undoubtedly are following the examples being set by the larger practitioners. The future for social entrepreneurship in accounting will be trending upward, and a lot of this movement is being driven by the industry’s newest recruits.

Millennials

Millennials make up about 25% of the population and will be a major sector of the job market for many years to come. A characteristic of this generation is that they are future-oriented. Also typical for this generation is a need for a values-based life, which had been stressed by their highly educated parents.7 Whereas previous generations were concerned with achieving a standard of living greater than their parents and focused on individual achievement, millennials see things a bit more collectively, for the good of the society at large. 

Accounting firms are hiring this generation, and they certainly will have them as clients. Leadership needs to understand this generation’s beliefs and aspirations, and perhaps tailor their business approach to create a match. This is where social entrepreneurship within the organization comes in. Millennials seek out companies for employment that are striving for social change. They want to work for a company where they feel like they are having an impact in other people’s lives. Indeed, 75% of millennials believe that a company needs to have a positive impact on society.

By 2025, millennials will make up 75% of the workforce. This means they not only will be a large portion of employees, but also will be customers with great buying power. If social entrepreneurship is important for millennials, then it should also be important to the industries recruiting millennials to work for them. To attract and hold those passionate about doing well by doing good, now is the time to do the work to create a synergy between what companies do and what their talent and clients hold dear.

Investigating the Trend

To investigate where the profession stands on these efforts, we conducted two studies. First, we interviewed five professionals with experience in public accounting at Big Four firms. These professionals are at the older end of the millennial generation and have been working in the profession at least five or more years. 

After compiling the responses, a few common themes emerged from the interviews. First, each company represented had some form of program that dealt with social change and helping those within the firms’ communities. Programs ranged from backpack drives for kids to building with Habitat for Humanity. Programs were not mandatory, and every company offered some form of “volunteer time off,” where the employee would be given a certain amount of paid time to go volunteer for an organization. Most programs involved donations and fundraising: money, blood drives, toy collections, school supplies, etc. All participants in our study agreed that these programs help unify the company as a team because it brings together different departments and coworkers who are not normally part of their interactions within the course of business. 

Another theme that emerged was the idea that implementing these programs was not only done to attract candidates for hire, but also to build customer relationships and make a good name for the company within the community. After gathering responses, we noticed that the perceived idea of social entrepreneurship is not uniform, nor does it necessarily compare with definitions found in academic literature. After defining the term for participants based on our research, everyone believed social entrepreneurship will continue within the public accounting industry.

Next, we surveyed 200 graduating college business majors by sending out a link to an online survey on social entrepreneurship. The students surveyed had a mean age of 22 and were majoring in accounting or a related field. Questions ranged from ranking what they find important within a company to defining social entrepreneurship. Common themes and reoccurring ideas helped support the proposition of our research. 

Below are the average ranking positions for what the surveyed students were looking for in a potential employer. They were asked to rank the seven options, with position one being most important and position seven as least important. The rankings were averaged to indicate what position they fall the closest to. The results suggest that the top three things potential employees are looking for include the company offers competitive pay, the company offers good benefits, and the company does good work for society. 

Employment Motivators

While good pay and benefits are the leading motivators for this generation, it is significant to note that “doing good for society” is a clear-cut third in the ranking. This should give support and encouragement to firms incorporating social entrepreneurship into their mission and practice to attract and retain top talent.

Putting It All Together

Together, the two studies suggest that public accounting firms are participating in social change and charity, but only a few companies are tapping into their industry-specific expertise to help advance social entrepreneurship. PricewaterhouseCoopers offers programs in which team members go into schools and teach children about saving money and building good credit. These programs are great, but there are many more opportunities out there for public accounting professionals to use their talents and skill sets to enhance society. Firms considering social entrepreneurship might consider ways to advise those who are struggling financially. This would be a unique way for public accounting to embrace the idea of social entrepreneurship while doing good in the community. 

Millennials entering the workforce care about social change, and it does affect whether they want to be a part of a company or not. Wages and benefits tend to be relatively uniform when it comes to public accounting firms, so one of the difference-makers may be developing these kinds of social entrepreneurship programs because potential or existing millennial employees value it. The desire for a socially responsible company beat out many value propositions that were important to workforces in the past, such as location, maximizing profits, and market share. 

If firms want top candidates, there should be initiatives that lead to social entrepreneurship. Not only will it provide quality workers who are willing to stay, but it will also develop a positive brand image for the firm. 

When it comes to social entrepreneurship, one of the best ways to implement change seamlessly is to lean on one’s professional expertise. Engineers should focus social entrepreneurial efforts on designing for those in need; educators should provide training that would benefit those in need; and CPAs should provide financial expertise, consulting, and tax help to organizations and individuals in need. Since the millennial generation will make up 75% of the workforce in the next few years, committing to these organizational efforts now will help recruit top candidates in the future.  

1 Peter Georgescu, “Just 100 Do Well by Doing Good,” Forbes (Jan. 10, 2018). 
2 J. Mair, J. and I. Marti, “Social Entrepreneurship: What Are We Talking About?” A Framework for Future Research (No. D/546), IESE Business School (2004). 
3 Knowledge@Wharton, “Why Companies Can No Longer Afford to Ignore Their Social Responsibilities,” (May 28, 2012): Republished and retrieved from business.time.com.  
4 Sarah Landrum, “Millennials Driving Brands to Practice Socially Responsible Marketing,” Forbes.(March 17, 2017). 
5 Ernst & Young LLP, Entrepreneurs = Innovation and Positive Social Change (2014).
6 Rhonda Evans, Gabriel Kasper, and Tony Siesfeld, “Evaluation Can Help Us Learn What Works, If We Fix It,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy (March 7, 2018).
7 P. R. Dannar, “Millennials: What They Offer Our Organizations and How Leaders Can Make Sure They Deliver,” The Journal of Values-Based Leadership (6(1), 3, 2013).
8 Carol Phillips and Judy Hopelain, “What Do Millennials Want in a Job? Insights for Making Talent Brands Millennial-Relevant,” Brand Amplitude Conference (Summer 2015). 



J. C. Blewitt, PhD, is associate professor of management in the William G. McGowan School of Business at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre. He can be reached at jcblewitt@kings.edu. 

Rebecca Kinzinger, CGFM, is a senior associate at Kearney & Company in Alexandria, Va. She can be reached at rebeccakinzinger13@gmail.com.

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