Spring 2016

Systemic social innovation - the business case

Our recent report Corporate Giving by the FTSE 100 revealed how the UK’s largest businesses are taking a critical look at their philanthropy budgets and shifting their support towards non-cash and in-kind giving. Taking a strategic view of where you can make a real social difference as an actor within a system, can be a route to achieve greater social and business value. 

Where does responsibility for global issues lie?

Tackling issues such as global poverty, public health, inequality, ageing well and education, is likely to require growing amounts of investment and a more sophisticated approach. Can the responsibility for such a crucial endeavour lie solely at the door of government? There is a developing consensus that business, in particular, needs to step up and take a more prominent role.

How can a more collaborative approach increase impact?

Of course, even with the best of intentions, business can’t do it all on its own either. Tackling social change requires careful thought to identify a socially useful role – call it, social purpose. 

Let’s take, for example, the case of a major public health issue like obesity. Business clearly plays its part in encouraging citizens to adopt a healthy lifestyle, but so must educators, health services, transport infrastructure and the media. In other words, we all exist within a “system” of different actors and influences in society. In much the same way as we think about ecosystems in nature, we must look at the whole system to understand how best to change behaviour.  Mapping out and analysing how each part of the system can use its resources to achieve positive social change can identify opportunities to achieve far greater impact and even social innovation. 

Why is systemic social innovation good for business?

Whilst you probably already recognise the long term importance of creating a sustainable business environment, there are more immediate drivers for business to consider its role in systemic social innovation. In our experience this “business case” typically includes:

  • Exploring new and future markets – using social innovation as an opportunity to explore the social needs of the future and look at new customer bases, such as in emerging markets or through defining markets in new ways.
  • Attracting and retaining talent – social innovation responds to the expectations of the millennial generation, making the workplace rewarding and meaningful, particularly in high pressure professional service environments.
  • Persuading consumers and investors that the business is operating on a sustainable basis – increasingly business is expected to be socially useful and to demonstrate its value to society and not just investors.

What examples are there of this working?

Some companies have been quick to recognise the need to adapt to this changing context and we are already seeing great examples of systemic social innovation. 

Our work with Warburtons through their partnership with parkrun, is starting to demonstrate systems thinking at a local level. Could the combined effect of all Britain’s businesses taking such a strategic approach be a powerful force for social change?

Many global companies have signed up to the UN Compact on sustainable development and a far more significant role is being expected of the private sector in delivering the UN Global Goals. This expectation is precisely because business can bring new expertise, perspectives and assets to global challenges.

We think there is an exciting opportunity for companies to achieve impact by applying a more strategic approach, identifying their valuable contribution within a systemic context, combining a social purpose with sustainable business value.

For more information on our work in this area, please contact ldosanjh@cafonline.org.

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