Skip to content

Ambivalence Avenue is an undesirable address

By Jilly Forster

24 September 2015
, ,

When austerity-focused government chooses to leave increasingly demanding social issues to charities, there is an opportunity for mainstream businesses to collaborate and make a real difference.

It is why we commissioned our inaugural Business to Society survey, to provide us with some evidence to support that opportunity.

We asked businesses about their commitment to engaging with social issues, as part of their core business.

Of 729 senior business decision-makers, 57% agreed that social issues should not be left to charities, with 38% disagreeing. But, when it comes to the need for business to be part of addressing a problem like social inequality, 49% disagreed and 45% agreed. Welcome to a world of ambivalence.

Mainstream business tends to lag behind mainstream consumers. Of 2,040 consumers asked similar questions, 63% agree that business should be part of the solution to tackling social issues faced by our society. You can explore more of the findings from the survey here.

Still, in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, after years of social and environmental change promotion, there are businesses who do not connect with the possibility of their involvement in certain issues that their own customers expect them to address.  This means that many of the more challenging issues are being ignored.

It’s not surprising that the most popular issues that businesses feel they should be involved in are helping people into employment (80%), supporting local communities (71%) and tackling environmental issues (68%). These are the more immediate ‘business of business’ issues. And, the mature environmental movement has introduced plenty of standards and compliance.

The three least popular causes, however, are a real cause for social concern: providing better care for older people (28%), tackling homelessness (25%) and reducing loneliness (25%).  Again, we shouldn’t be surprised. These are long-term issues, where many businesses do not see that they have a role.

Yet, we believe our research shows that it isn’t so much an unwillingness for mainstream business to partner with charities and other social change agencies, but rather the lack of understanding about how to go about it. People don’t know where to start or don’t feel they have the license to get involved – it’s harder than painting a wall or giving to a kids cancer charity.

Businesses should match their support for an issue to their core business. Not only for greater authenticity and more coherence as B2C and B2B providers, but also for better and more fruitful business for all – B2S, or Business to Society.

Take homelessness, for example. Of all the sectors we engaged in our research, the Real Estate sector seemed the least concerned about the social issue of homelessness. This sector is the most likely to agree that businesses should stick to making money (52%). Only 9% of real estate businesses believe they should get involved in reducing homelessness. When 45% of consumers polled feel that all businesses should be involved in tackling homelessness, there’s a clear gap of expectation and accountability. Homelessness is undesirable and unnecessary. As a social problem. It’s getting worse.

Redemption for the Real Estate sector comes from their expecting to get a little more involved in tackling issues in the coming 12 months (48%). Well, there is no bigger or better opportunity to match real estate’s core business with an issue, than homelessness.

For the Real Estate sector, a homelessness charity may need to up its game in explaining the reputational benefits of involvement in what should be a core issue. Over half (53%) of people polled are more likely to give their custom to a business with a strong stance on social and environmental issues. First mover advantage, anyone?

This is even more the case in younger groups (67% of 18-24 year olds) – the emerging generation who will become the customers of all business sectors.

For businesses looking to connect, young people can be a good place to start – if the cause is right, authentic and credible. All the supporting evidence is there –  46% of people polled feel that businesses should be involved in providing better care for older people – much higher among younger age groups. 45% feel that businesses should be involved in tackling homelessness, highest among 18-34y olds.

While businesses claim they will become more actively engaged in being issues-focused over the coming 12 months, many are overlooking what’s right in front of their noses. While it’s important to understand the challenges and engage with the right cause and partner in a meaningful way, the tougher issues are being ignored. Let’s not leave them to charity. Consumers, your customers, want you to become engaged, especially the younger ones.

Children, puppies and donkeys are the consumer-friendly causes companies love to support, but they aren’t the only important issues facing our society. There are plenty of reasons why any company can and should be brave enough.

And nobody wants to live on Ambivalence Avenue.