I have a confession: I help corporations to solve social problems that I’ve never actually experienced. I’ve never been without a home, never been in poverty and never experienced hunger. And, during my almost twenty years spent in boardrooms with people who want their companies to make a bigger difference in the world, there hasn’t been a single time that a person with “lived experience” was present. I believe this is why corporate social responsibility has been largely ineffective. I also believe that the only way for businesses to effectively engage employees, consumers and investors in this area is to include people with lived experience in a meaningful way.

“History illuminates the power of individuals and communities who have worked to solve the social problems they have directly experienced,” says Baljeet Sandhu a human rights lawyer and founding director of the Migrant and Refugee Children’s Legal Unit. “Consider the women’s rights movement; the civil rights movement; Alcoholics Anonymous; or the world’s first safe house for women and children, Refuge, set up by a child survivor of domestic violence.”

The fact is that highly educated business professionals with years of experience haven’t done a very good job. This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, why would someone with an MBA be qualified to develop a solution to hunger? What is surprising is that the people best able to solve these social problems people have been left out. There is no shortage of cases that illustrate why the most successful social outcomes come from ordinary people.

The Springboard Collaborative is a summer reading program in Philadelphia. Springboard’s success is based on engaging the public school system’s most underemployed resource: low-income, predominately African-American or Latino parents, a group that is often characterised as unable or unwilling to help their own children. Rebuild Foundation was founded and led by Theaster Gates, a black American potter originally from West Side Chicago. Working with other artists and members of the community, Rebuild Foundation has transformed South Side Chicago through community-centred art-led urban development. Abandoned buildings have been re-imaged and re-created as community hubs that connect and inspire those who still live there. Materials that had been abandoned or are broken have been used to create nationally renowned cultural spaces.

One of the most extraordinary examples of the ability of people with lived experience is in Zambia, a country the size of Texas, with only six surgeons in its rural areas. In a region where essential health care is simply not available “clinical officers” take a three-year surgery course to learn the most commonly needed operations, such as C-sections, hysterectomies, appendectomies and bowel obstruction surgery.

Who’s better at helping youth who’ve experienced homelessness to find work? A social service job developer or a youth who has also experienced homelessness and then been able to find meaningful employment and stable housing? My experience in hiring a youth who was homeless to help develop HireUp, Canada’s national platform that connects companies to youth who’ve experienced homelessness showed it’s the latter. Cameron, the youth we hired to help us with HireUp. had this to say, “Lived experience provides not only the deep understanding needed to analyse and effectively respond to a social issue, but also a passion that would be difficult to replicate under other circumstances.” Cameron now has his own home and is enrolled in university.

It’s important that everyone working in social change understands and is empathetic to the circumstances and perspectives of the people they are trying to help. I’ve found that’s largely the case, but it’s not enough. Effective social change is only possible when people with lived experience are involved from design to implementation of initiatives that are intended to improve their lives. There are four ways that businesses can make this happen in a way that is effective for them and respectful for the people they involve.

A process should be established to ensure that people affected by the issue are involved from the outset. Ways of doing this include developing a partnership with a local social service agency where meetings about the proposed initiative can be held. By holding meetings where people with lived experience are already gathered, you ensure that transportation isn’t a barrier to participation. In addition, a person with lived experience should be given a formal role, such as project co-chair, and compensated for assuming this position.

Every corporate social change program should be co-created with people who have lived experience. Ways of doing this include running program design sessions that are facilitated in part by people with lived experience, involving participants from the affected community and providing support such as day care at no cost.

Generally, corporations engage their advertising agencies – organisations that are comprised of people with education and privilege – in the development of program materials. Program materials should be created by (or at the very least, informed by) people with lived experience. When we developed a program to address the financial needs of indigenous women entrepreneurs, we hired an indigenous woman who has a graphic design business to design the final report.

People who are experiencing the social problems should develop the metrics for measuring and evaluating programs that are designed to help them. Further, they should also be a part of the measurement and evaluation itself. We call this “community-based program assessment”.

It’s important to recognise that involving people with lived experience may also require help in areas such as communications and organisational skills; and businesses must be sensitive to the needs of people who’ve experienced trauma. By using these approaches, corporations will develop more effective social change programmes and more efficiently engage employees, consumers and other important audiences.

I believe corporations have the opportunity, and the imperative, to move beyond ineffective and non-inclusive corporate social responsibility by helping to reduce stereotypes about low-income people and minorities. “Social change is participatory,” said Dr. Larry Brilliant, epidemiologist and founding executive director of Google.org. “That’s what makes it social.”



  • This post gives the views of its authors, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
  • Featured image by Andrew Warran, under a CC-BY-NC-SA licence
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Paul Klein is founder and CEO of Impakt, a B Corp founded in 2001 that helps corporations solve social problems, and Impakt Labs, a non-profit organisation that incubates social enterprises. Paul sits on the advisory board of the Centre for Excellence in Responsible Business at the Schulich School of Business.