How can business leadership change society for the better?

More and more, businesses are expected to use their position in the world to change society for the better. At a time when businesses face questions over trust and consumers have been lashed by economic uncertainty, people’s expectations of businesses are growing.

At the Charities Aid Foundation we work with thousands of businesses – including some of the world’s best-known brands. In my experience, businesses want to have a strong sense of social purpose within their mission and show how they can address problems in society.

More and more, businesses are expected to use their position in the world to change society for the better

Through our work we have identified three strong leadership roles that businesses can play in society. They can set the agenda on social issues, they can act as a social investor, and they can build capacity in society. Already, I see many businesses doing all three things, and are setting an example that others can – and should – follow.

First, businesses are increasingly acting as social agenda setters. Barclays are focussing on youth unemployment, helping change the lives of 5m young people by 2015. Diageo aim to empower two million women in the Asia-Pacific region by 2017. These firms have used a scientific, business-like approach to social problems that will affect customers and markets, lending their brand, skills and resources to campaign for social change.

I’ve also seen businesses become more strategic in their funding, acting as social investors and seeking leverage, scale and a close fit with their business. Nationwide Foundation provide social investment to tackle housing issues, allowing capital to be reused many times. JP Morgan are investing in innovative, evidence-based programmes, such as the Sutton Trust and Education Endowment Foundation’s work on educational achievement.

Businesses are increasingly acting as social agenda setters… firms have used a scientific, business-like approach to social problems

The third role we are seeing businesses play is that of social capacity builders. They are using their commercial skills to provide mentoring, skilled volunteering, apprenticeships and training to build capacity in their communities and key markets. E.ON offers an apprenticeship scheme to help attract a new source of talent whilst also developing the right skills for the future of the UK economy.

A great example combining these three roles is our award-winning SE Assist programme with Legal and General, which brings social investment and business mentoring to local social enterprises. We worked with L&G to identify the social need and how they could uniquely address this. We then built a business case and designed a programme that combined social investment with business mentoring.

Overall our vision is that deploying these three leadership roles can deliver social innovation, and a new kind of inclusive business, finding smart ways to create more value for business, and more value for society.

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