Monumental challenges, such as climate change, social injustice, and poverty, are inspiring people worldwide to take action and find ways to better their communities and society at large. As efforts to solve these issues have grown over time, so, too, has the role businesses play in driving social change.

According to Harvard Business School Professor Rebecca Henderson, who teaches the online course Sustainable Business Strategy, companies are starting to realize the importance of thinking long-term and considering the social impact of their products and services.

“This realization is arriving not a moment too soon,” Henderson writes in the Harvard Business Review. “The world badly needs a more sustainable form of capitalism if we’re going to build a more inclusive, prosperous society and avoid catastrophic climate change.”

What Does Social Impact Mean?

Before setting out to drive change, it’s important to understand what the term “social impact” means. Positive social impact refers to the ways that businesses and individuals take action to address issues facing their communities.

To bring about social change, business leaders must identify the core values that motivate them to act. Those values are often focused on issues such as climate change, poverty, and other pressing social and environmental challenges impacting society. With values informing their decision-making and strategy, purpose-driven leaders can feel empowered to make a difference.

Working toward positive social change can mutually benefit businesses and the communities they operate within. Consulting firm Deloitte has outlined six drivers of business value that directly relate to social impact: brand differentiation, talent attraction and retention, innovation, operational efficiency, risk mitigation, and capital access and market valuation.

For business leaders seeking to make a difference, now is the time to act. Here are four accessible ways companies can be more purpose-driven and positively impact society.

Related: How Can Purpose Impact Business Performance?

Business Strategies for Social Change

1. Engage in and Promote Ethical Business Practices

To effect change externally, companies need to first look internally and ensure that a commitment to social responsibility is embedded in their business operations.

For manufacturing giant General Electric (GE), a presence in the global marketplace creates conditions that require the company to regularly confront complex human rights issues. To overcome these challenges, GE works to prevent forced labor through its Ethical Supply Chain Program (pdf), and practices responsible sourcing through a pledge to eliminate the use of “conflict minerals” (pdf)—mined materials that finance armed factions and human rights abuses—in its products. Through these initiatives, the company has bolstered its sustainability strategy and encouraged business partners to follow suit, with the goal of enacting system-level change.

GE serves as a prime example of how working for the greater good starts with leading by example. Companies seeking to do the same should consider how they can be more ethical in their sourcing and production processes, and use social responsibility as a lens through which to reform their business practices.

Related: What Does "Sustainability" Mean in Business?

2. Form Strategic Partnerships with Nonprofit Organizations

Influencing systemic change is no easy task. It requires a deep understanding of the problems facing society and steadfastness to overcome them.

Strategically partnering with nonprofit organizations that directly tackle the world’s most pressing challenges can be an effective way for companies to boost their social impact.

An example is the partnership between Peet’s Coffee and Technoserve, a nonprofit that helps people in developing countries lift themselves out of poverty by building competitive farms, businesses, and industries. Together, the organizations spearhead the Farmer Assistance Program, an initiative that focuses on training smallholder farmers to produce high-quality coffee.

Through the collaboration, farmers in countries like Ethiopia, Guatemala, and Rwanda have been equipped with business skills and knowledge of environmental sustainability best practices, enabling them to improve their lives and communities.

This joint effort illustrates the great strides that can be made when for-profit and not-for-profit firms combine their resources to work for the greater good.

Related: Lessons on Corporate Social Responsibility From New Transportation Partnership

3. Encourage Employees to Volunteer

Being a purpose-driven firm requires an adherence to social responsibility that goes deeper than the organizational level. Employees need to share in the company’s vision for change and feel that their contributions are meaningful.

Encouraging employees to volunteer is a practical way to involve staff in social impact initiatives and boost morale. In a recent survey by Deloitte (pdf), 74 percent of workers said they believe volunteerism provides an improved sense of purpose.

At organic food producer Clif Bar, volunteering is an integral part of the company’s business model. Through the CLIF CORPS program, employees are encouraged to dedicate their time to issues and organizations that are important to them—and during work hours.

In 2017, Clif Bar achieved a major milestone when it reached 100,000 hours of community service—the equivalent to paying 48 employees to volunteer full-time for one year.

By fostering a culture that inspirits employees to give back, companies can empower their workforce to engage with issues that matter to them and instill a sense of shared purpose.

Sustainable Business Strategy

4. Inspire Action with Corporate Platforms

Beyond implementing programs and initiatives to address global problems, using platforms like blogs and social media channels as advocacy tools can be a powerful way for businesses to push for change.

Outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia is one example of an organization that uses its far-reaching corporate voice to raise awareness of the challenges facing society, most notably surrounding climate change.

On its blog The Cleanest Line, Patagonia recently advocated for protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from development and, in the past, has voiced its support for such events as the People’s Climate March.

In addition, the company launched Patagonia Action Works in 2017, an online platform that connects people to nearby environmental activism opportunities. Since the tool’s inception, it’s been used to support grassroots campaigns to defend wild buffalo in Montana and preserve Oregon’s high desert, among other efforts.

Patagonia’s work to combat climate change represents the type of influence companies can have when they resourcefully use their communication platforms to inspire collective action.

Taking a Values-Driven Approach to Business

Large-scale change doesn’t happen overnight. Solving the world’s major social and environmental problems takes time and effort. But through a purpose-driven approach to business, companies can help create a more just and sustainable future.

Do you want to help your organization drive system-level change? Explore our three-week online course Sustainable Business Strategy and find out how you can become a purpose-driven leader.

(This post was updated on November 24, 2020. It was originally published on January 24, 2019.)

Matt Gavin

About the Author

Matt Gavin is a member of the marketing team at Harvard Business School Online. Prior to returning to his home state of Massachusetts and joining HBS Online, he lived in North Carolina, where he held roles in news and content marketing. He has a background in video production and previously worked on several documentary films for Boston’s PBS station, WGBH. In his spare time, he enjoys running, exploring New England, and spending time with his family.