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For over 50 years one way that businesses have attempted to differentiate is through the auspices of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Martin Williams FRSA argues it is high time for a more radical and disruptive approach that puts a far greater focus on investment in social projects and empowers people to create their own solutions.

Corporates entertain the social agenda for a variety of reasons; since the1960s we have witnessed hundreds of ways of being seen to be a responsible business, from being nice to employees, recruitment diversity, being kind to the environment and community initiatives of every imaginable dimension. As the gap between the rich and the poor widens to unprecedented levels, businesses frantically search for attention grabbing brand differentiation to combat ever-greater competitive pressures.  Yet in over 50 years, we have seen little in the way of disruptive change.

There has been the odd exception. When Jamie Oliver stretched his brand into the social venture arena with his fifteen project some 13years ago, you would have been forgiven for thinking that a new, innovative way of delivering social value beyond the norms of conventional CSR was born. Since then few, if any businesses have followed suit by leveraging their core brand, embracing the concept of corporate social investment (CSI). 

But, as far as I can see, Jamie’s fifteen is the only social venture in the UK borne out of a core brand and operating in the same space, and that was created way back in 2002.  The lack of benign plagiarism is a mystery given the potential benefits to core business, shareholder value and recruitment, not to mention the genuine social impact generated through this enlightened approach.

There are thousands of ongoing, worthwhile, high-impact CSR initiatives, but still too few that promote the concept of self-reliance, of giving people the tools to create their own solutions. Indeed, the reality of many of these so-called CSR initiatives is that they amount to no more than ‘have a day off to paint the community centre’ projects. They bear no resemblance to the notion of social investment and provide no sustainable solutions; doing little other than stroking the ego and ‘ticking the box’.

Yet many enlightened leaders, particularly the entrepreneurial and family-owned variety, recognise that they have the capacity, capability and connectivity to add value to the social venture economy, mobilising their own valuable resources to make sustainable change. It is a paradox that in the UK the social venture economy, led by the social enterprise movement, is comprised almost entirely of micro-businesses that lack resource and investment, and in many cases, business expertise.

In a parallel universe, the private sector, awash with resource and know how, in too many cases follows the traditional formula of chequebook CSR, fostering a dependency, unsustainability culture, contra to their best intentions.

Sustainable solutions to many of our ‘poverty’ challenges can only be attained through a new narrative, a collaborative approach between the private and social economy sectors, not with them operating in silos with conflicting agendas and misaligned objectives.

Excuse the intentional pun, but the ‘bottom line’ is that there is a huge, untapped opportunity for the private sector to create, incubate, foster, mentor and invest in the social venture economy, bringing about collaborative, joined up sustainable solutions.

The big win is that by taking the CSI path, smart people will not only want to buy from you, but they will also want to work for you; they want meaningful personal development opportunities way beyond having a day off to paint the fence of the local retirement home.

Martin Williams FRSA is an independent consultant and executive coach based in South Wales.

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