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Get commercial: the way to maximise social impact

SaniaH_smallThe power of commercial services:

I’m always struck by how little commercial services are valued for their ability to make a positive impact on society. We have great support services that help those in need, but on the whole we’re not making the most of the commercial resources available. By commercial services I mean those that are provided by private sector organisations. These include services that they charge for, offer for free as part of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives or that they have been commissioned to provide by a non-profit or governmental organisation.

A few months ago, while conducting a project on the needs of cancer patients, this became all the more apparent to me. Though non-commercial services such as therapy and financial support are fundamental, for many I spoke to the impact of commercial services was substantial .

One lady undergoing treatment mentioned the positive impact that a free make-up course run by MAC and Bobby Brown had on her. The course was organised by Look Good Feel Better, an American organisation that partners with brands to help people with cancer manage the appearance-related side effects of their treatment.  Seeing her physical appearance change as a result of cancer was especially troubling as she considered herself a ‘girly girl.’ The course gave her make-up hints and tips, to help her feel more like herself.

However, as amazing as the impact of the make-up course was, it was something she stumbled upon: she wasn’t signposted to it by any of her support workers. The exact reasons for the lack of signposting weren’t clear, but it seems likely that the benefits were undervalued. For me this is a shame as commercial services have the ability to significantly influence human behaviour and used in the right way, can boost the level of positive social impact we can achieve.

If we think about it, whether primarily motivated by a desire to make a positive social impact or not, there are countless examples of how commercial organisations have changed the way we live for the better. For example, Google has given us access to endless amounts of information at our fingertips, Apple has revolutionised how communicate and relate to technology, whilst Facebook has redefined how we interact with people.

Let’s take the music industry as another example. Back when rap music first started in America it was used as a mechanism to empower African Americans, many of whom were facing challenging social and economic circumstance, and lacked an authentic voice. Rap’s commercial approach to tackling issues effecting this community influenced people in ways that social policies just couldn’t. Despite this, its commercial nature means that it’s often not given the credit it deserves. TuPac was known for making bold political statements, but being a commercial artist he was seldom recognised as an influential activist in the way that political figures were.

A great example…


I recently came across a programme run by The Girl Effect, a non-profit organisation primarily funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and The Nike Foundation. It aims to improve the life chances of young girls in Ethiopia through the medium of popular culture. Statistics show that rates of child marriage (some as young as 12) are high in Ethiopia, with most becoming young mothers and unable to further their education. Furthermore, with one in five Ethiopian girls said to have no close friends, they have few people to go to for help or support.

The Girl Effect has set up a fictional radio series (Yegna) which covers the lives of ordinary young Ethiopian girls, documenting their various experiences and challenges. The aim is to increase awareness of prominent social issues and help young girls tackle them, including staying in school, gaining economic assets, violence, early marriage and pregnancy.

A number of steps have been taken to measure and increase engagement with the initiative. Following the broadcast, the radio team holds a live phone chat to discuss the show’s topics. They have also developed a network of 500 volunteers who organise listening parties. Finally, the team has conducted a baseline survey on societal attitudes towards girls, and tracks these over time to assess the impact of the programme.

What we can learn

Whether encouraging commercial companies to get involved in social change as part of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, contracting them to deliver services or just emulating their approach, there is much to be learned. Taking a commercial approach to social change will help us develop initiatives that:

  • Engage: people are more likely to get actively involved if they emotionally connect
  • Reach a mass audience: large-scale impact can be achieved relatively cost-effectively
  • Remove stigma: treating individuals like any other commercial service user means they will not perceive themselves as being singled out or classified as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘different’

The impacts of commercially influenced initiatives, such as Yegna, may be subtle at first, but their potential to change society should not be undervalued. Especially in the current climate, where governments and many third sector organisations are facing challenging financial circumstances, we need to think of innovative ways to make money go further. If done well, commercially influenced initiatives will help organisations achieve their objectives more effectively.

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