Ciara Kelly: “Doing good” business: Can organizations drive positive changes in society?
Business gets a lot of bad press. We are not short of reports of bad behaviour about organizations and their members, from the LIBOR-fixing scandal to the BHS pension deficit. There is no denying that market-based organizations are massively influential within our society, however this influence can also be harnessed in positive ways.
So how do organizations actively try to be a force for good in society? And what approaches should organizations use to succeed at achieving change? I was recently part of a team that tried to answer exactly these questions.
In our review, we focused on examples of positive social change (PSC) achieved by organizations. We defined PSC as “the process of transforming patterns of thought, behavior, social relationships, institutions, and social structure to generate beneficial outcomes for individuals, communities, organizations, society, and/or the environment beyond the benefits for the instigators of such transformations”.
This approach went beyond simple examples of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), to also examine social entrepreneurship and ‘bottom of the pyramid’ studies, which examine market based solutions for problems facing individuals on the lowest incomes. For instance, we highlighted the example of SC Johnson, the chemicals company, which developed innovative business opportunities in low-income communities in Nairobi, Kenya. The company partnered with local NGO and entrepreneurial youth groups to identify and offer services that supported the health and wellbeing of the community, such as house cleaning services to help reduce the risk of disease. SC Johnson provided training to local entrepreneurs and then ran their own enterprises under the umbrella organization “Community Cleaning Services”.
Our team reviewed 144 accounts of positive social change from 118 sources published over 20 years. Using strict criteria for retention, these sources were drawn from an initial search which yielded no fewer than 10,509 results. We found examples of organizations instigating change across a large range of areas, such as the environment, social and economic inclusion, health and well-being, and civic engagement. This review of the existing research can be characterized, without exaggeration, as massive (and time-consuming!).
Our review showed there were two strategies that organizations used to approach social change projects – deep-level and surface-level strategies.
Deep-level PSC strategies were developmental, empowering, and often focused on the strengths of those they were working with to instigate change, for example the local knowledge of the entrepreneurs in the SC Johnston example. PSC projects employing deep-level strategies typically targeted more complex needs and several PSC domains simultaneously (e.g., health and social inclusion) and lasted over a longer time span. The impact of these projects often unfolded slowly but steadily over time.
However, the social impact associated with deep-level strategies appeared to be pervasive and durable as change was embedded in “deeper-level” transformations of both targets (their attitudes, beliefs, and capabilities) and their contexts (opportunity structures and social capital). Specifically, projects using deep-level strategies combined multiple change mechanisms and organizational practices, providing targets with the motivation, capability and opportunity to instigate change.
In surface-level strategies, targets of change are treated as mostly “reactive” to their context rather than active drivers of change. Surface strategies often combined motivation and opportunity mechanisms, where targets changed their behavior in response to extrinsic motivators (financial or reputation incentives, social pressure) and restructured decision-making contexts (e.g., default options privileging healthy or pro-environmental choices).
Two prominent forms of surface-level strategies were found. The first included approaches that have been popularized as “nudging” in behavioral economics (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). The second type includes those that specifically use threat and fear as motivating mechanisms. “Nudge” approaches are supported by a greater volume of better quality evidence (e.g., experiments and randomized control trials) than fear approaches. Surface strategies seemed particularly suitable and popular when behaviors were less complex and easy to perform (e.g. one-off healthy food choices in a cafeteria setting).
So which strategy should organizations use for driving change?
Evidence that directly compares these nudging and fear-based strategies is scarce. The evidence we reviewed suggested that deep level strategies may be more effective than threats in driving PSC. Threats can make people feel overwhelmed and fearful and thus cause them to disengage completely from an issue. But deep level strategies can be time-consuming and narrow in their immediate effects. Future research could delve further into this question, or go even further to look at how the approaches may be fruitfully combined to maximise the impacts of PSC initiatives in the future.
You can read our (Open Access) review in full here.
Or, if you work for an organization that would like advice on how you can drive positive social change, you may wish to browse our executive report, which has been produced for the Network for Business Sustainability: “Organizations Driving Positive Social Change: A Review and an Integrative Framework of Change Processes”