Business as a source of inspiration? It could change the world.

This month the results of our annual Most Inspiring Companies™ survey were released; I encourage you to take a look at the results covered here in Forbes. The survey, based entirely on consumer perceptions of companies, polled more than 2,000 individuals across the U.S. and for the second year in a row, Apple topped the list. Rounding out the top five were: Walmart, Target, Google and Microsoft.

For the first time this year, and in light of what is taking place on the national scene, we asked respondents: “Who is most likely to make the world a better place? a) businesses b) charities/nonprofits c) churches/synagogues d) government?”  Interestingly, businesses and charities ranked evenly with 39% of the votes, churches/synagogues trailed at 22%, and government received (perhaps not surprising) zero votes.

With results showing that consumers have equal faith that nonprofits and business will make the world a better place, we have to ask, are businesses doing their part to meet this expectation?

Before we come to a conclusion on that point, let’s consider one of the more telling survey results. One notable response on what makes an organization inspiring was: “they possess a servant attitude,” meaning that particular company seemed to genuinely care about human needs, even over profit.

Consider TOMS Shoes, number 18 on the Most Inspiring list. For each pair of shoes purchased, a pair is donated to someone in need. A TOMS’ customer knows that when they buy a pair of shoes, their purchase goes beyond what they have just bought. They feel confident and inspired by their experience because it is helping someone else. Businesses that have incorporated a charitable element into their business model are a step ahead in the inspiration game.

Interestingly, respondents chose the second (Walmart) and third (Target) place companies, in part, because they felt they excelled in corporate social responsibility. Consumers shared that they appreciate that Walmart gives back to the community by employing its senior citizens, and believe Target is doing its part by donating 5% of its pre-tax profits back to the communities in which it serves.

The 2012 Most Inspiring list is numerical proof—businesses have more of an opportunity than ever to inspire consumers and ultimately create an emotional connection that translates into lifelong customers. Every one of the companies in the top 25 was described in some way as follows: affirming, credible, having a servant attitude, visionary, progressing and authentic.

Change is on the horizon. Perhaps the best place for an organization to start is backward, asking what steps they need to take to inspire customers to reference them as “affirming,” “credible” and “authentic.”

What do you think? Do businesses have the power to make the world a better place? What organizations do you think are missing from the top 25? We would love your thoughts and feedback.

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