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Feb 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Purpose Beyond Profit: It’s One Thing to “Do Good”, Another to “Stop Doing Bad”…

Adrian Underhill is a teacher trainer and consultant, writer and speaker. He’s a past President of IATEFL, current IATEFL ambassador, trustee of International House London, and series editor of Macmillan Books for Teachers. Aside from sustainability attitudes in ELT, his current projects include leadership development, managing in complexity, the future of teacher training, reflective and inquiry practices, styles of group facilitation, and bringing playfulness and improvisation into classroom learning. Email:

We in the ELT business may think we provide a language for international expression and understanding, which can bring the world together and enable people to cooperate and discuss alternative futures, and solve or prevent social and environmental catastrophes. People and organisations involved in teaching languages are likely to have interests that extend beyond their own culture, and to see things from multiple perspectives, and to see that there is a bigger global picture to be glimpsed.

At the same time it is clear that through global commerce we are destroying the environment we belong to. But commerce can also be the solution, and for the last 20 years this has been the basis of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) more recently referred to as Environmental and Social Governance (ESG). This proposes that business cannot flourish unless the society that supports it is flourishing, and that businesses of every sort need to reduce (ultimately to near zero) their negative impact on people and planet. In other words, stop devastating the planet simply because natural resources appear to come ‘free of charge”, and stop screwing people, and develop governance to enhance environmental and social well being, both of which affect business now, and grandchildren soon.

Over the last 20 years audit methods have been developed to enable businesses in every country to account for their environmental and social impacts, in much the way they account for their financial bottom line. This has sometime been called “the triple bottom line”.

Of course, what I’m getting round to is the question “Where is ELT in all this?” (To be on the safe side I will refer to the UK context here, though I am certain that all of this applies in similar ways throughout the world). Why is there so little mention of this on UK based ELT schools’ and providers’ websites, in their promotion, or in their reputation building? (to be fair, there is a little, but can you find it?). What about the other visible institutions, publishers, assessment providers, teachers associations? And why is sustainable behaviour not part of school inspection criteria? Are they not what we should expect from any responsible quality organization doing business in in this connected up world? Is it not part of global citizen education?

The situation at the moment

What happens at the moment is that businesses including ELT respond to the Environmental and Social Governance opportunity in one of three ways:

1. We do nothing: Some of the reasons for this: “We never heard of the idea… We never thought about it … We don’t care… We do care but we are too busy/insecure/stressed out… t is not good for my "business reputation" to care about this stuff…

… We adhere to the Keynesian view that to care about anything beyond profit is business stupidity…” etc. etc.

2. We do “good” We do good things for public benefit. Building schools, disaster relief, charitable work, offering our teaching and training skills, and so on.. This second category includes everything from “greenwash” – ie quick fix stuff that looks good on the company website but may carry little useful impact and is perhaps diversionary, through to well-intentioned and thought through actions that really do make a worthwhile difference. However the common factor they share is that they involve doing public benefit out of post tax profit, and they do not involve stopping doing “bad”. (“Don’t question the getting as long as there is some giving”)

3. We stop doing “bad” This is the strongest version and the only one that gets to the heart of the issues. It involves reducing and finally stopping the practices that contribute to the environmental and social problems. This is not a feel good addition to the business publicity from the marketing dept, it is encoded in the DNA of the culture and business plan, and can be found in every part of the school or institution.


A prototype plan for thought, talk and action

So, what about service industries like ELT? Here’s a prototype plan for how you might start to talk, feel, and think about getting active on option 3 , and see how far you an take “stop doing bad”. There are 4 points for any organisation to discuss The first two are the actions, the second two are business benefits.

1. Your upstream impact: Develop an interest in the sustainability practices of your suppliers (energy, catering, office, utilities, services, education materials hard and soft, IT, building contractors, cleaning contractors, the people you borrow money from etc) and in include this in your criteria fro choosing them. Ask for evidence of their sustainability practices and explain that you are looking to reduce your school’s footprint so in due course you will need to switch to suppliers who themselves are starting to work sustainably, and who can show it. This way you use your buying power to support those with good governance of their environmental and social practices, while giving a creative surprise to others who need to do likewise, and you start to reduce your own impact. Obviously this is a movement that cascades, and it is a responsible action to see yourself as a link in that cascade.

2. Your downstream impact. Downstream impact includes the results of all your operating processes, everything going on in your organization. Waste of every kind, not just plastic bottles and waste paper, but food waste, energy waste, time waste, end of life consumer goods, building waste, water waste, emotional waste (anger, customer frustration or lack of delight, over work, lack of support training for staff and so on) And what about the primary product of ELT? We sort of know what sustainability comprises in a light bulb, but what is sustainability in our ELT product? Seriously! And what is the drip by drip impact on all stakeholders of a felt but unmentioned lack of sustainability governance? (in the last two days writing this article I have been at events in two leading UK schools where all the drinks were in single use disposables… That may be small but subconsciously it can sap your energy to do bigger things …)

So what might happen if your school or organisation adopts a wider vision of purpose beyond profit? What if your school pursues its primary product -  teaching English – but at the same time has a purpose beyond? A purpose that perhaps also aligns directly with staff and customer values, with the world view of Millennials and generation Z, and which enhances the school’s reputation through legitimate and honest advocacy?


3. For staff, customers, stakeholders: “Purpose beyond profit” offers a wider sense of worthwhileness

  • It creates a sense of purposeful mission, beyond doing excellent work.
  • Enables staff and customers to “take their values to work” rather than leaving them at home
  • Attracts and retains talented, motivated, connected up employees, which in turn attracts customers
  • Develops reciprocal relationships with partners and new markets
  • Builds contacts with thought leaders and opinion-formers;
  • Aspires to the view of profit flowing from the pursuit of broader social purposes.
  • A premise of ESG is that most people want to use their lives in ways that feel significant, they want to be involved in activities that contribute, that do good, and that they would like their work to make a difference on a wider canvas.
  • Having a purpose beyond profit can offer staff, students and stakeholders a wider sense of worthwhile engagement.  


4.  For reputation: Sell a life crusade, not just an elementary course with 3 options and a smart board.

  • People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.
  • People buy your belief, not your product. This is a basis of ‘brand’. And your product simply serves as the proof of your belief
  • Get fans not customers
  • Reputation is as much about actions and attitudes as it is about products and services.
  • Sell a life crusade, not just an elementary course with 3 options and a smart board.
  • Marketing becomes powerful and convincing when mission, people, purpose and product are all aligned
  • Promote yourself as a thought leader. Describe your intentions and show how you are doing using the audited metrics. It is work in progress. People will tune in to follow your pioneering journey. Aim to influence by leading the way


And what about the embarrassing bits?

Just because most people attending courses in the Uk arrive by air does not mean you cannot talk about the footprint.  All the problems are there to be faced, and there are many ways to go about facing them, mitigating them, reducing them, or just puzzling over it, publicly, for the moment.



Auditing is the key to translating responsible environmental and social governance into reputation, promotion, and a fan club. The necessary auditing and metric calculation services are available from both face to face consultants and online.


Suggestions for getting started

1. Wake up!  We should get active across the whole industry first to discuss our responsibility for appropriate action and then to do it.  We all understand why not much has happened so far, but the alarm has gone off repeatedly, we’ve all heard it, time to wake up.

2. Thought leadership. The thought leader schools and institutions will be those who talk first and act first. They will inevitably attract visibility and accrue reputation. A large number of schools should then follow, some quickly, some slowly.

3. Be visible. Talk about what you’re doing and why, and be transparent on your websites, refer to it in promotion and expect reputation to accrue.

4. Don’t expect to be perfect. Just get started, tell others what you are doing, be clear about successes and mistakes. Help others learn from your discoveries. Make your actions a provocation to others to act. In the best tradition of ELT – Share!

5. Don’t wait! Don’t wait for the British Council inspection scheme, IATEFL, ENGLISH UK, publishers, Cambridge Assessment etc to go first. They may take ages. If you are small and lean, start now. The worst thing is to wait to be told to do it. Compliance is always too little and too late. Compliance is for the stragglers.

6. Go on line and see who in ELT ha already started, because some have…. And pick up the ball and take it further. Start researching and sharing the resources available online to guide you, and to audit your social and environmental performance so that you have purposeful metrics to guide your actions and your claims.


Fiddling while Rome burns

I was asked by HLT to write about something significant to me that had or had not changed in the 20 years since HLT started. Although I am currently deeply involved in a dozen ELT related projects, they are all insignificant alongside the issues raised here. Back in the year 2000 I confidently expected that within 20 years, by 2020:

  • There would have developed a shared purpose and action across ELT schools and providers to build into the core of their business plans not just ‘doing good’ but the reduction of ‘doing bad’ environmentally and socially.
  • That this would be a matter of audited, visible, shared, mutual, self-disclosure by each organization on their websites
  • That such disclosure would be integral to their brand value, would enhance reputation and attractiveness to clients, and offer a new level of unique selling points to providers.
  • And ELT would offering global leadership.

We have all been fiddling while Rome burns. But….  it’s still only 2019 ….. Schools desperately need something new and interesting to say about themselves….. And the imperatives are pressing. Could 2020 still be the year?


Please check the English Course for Teachers and School Staff at Pilgrims website.

Please check the How to be a Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Leadership Skills for Teachers course at Pilgrims website.  

Tagged  Various Articles 
  • Purpose Beyond Profit: It’s One Thing to “Do Good”, Another to “Stop Doing Bad”…
    Adrian Underhill, UK

  • The Reunion. On Intuitive Observation in Educational Situations
    Henk van Oort, the Netherlands

  • Random Teacher’s Thoughts Organized Along A Running Trail
    Marina Marinova, Germany