Attitudes about business and social responsibility, says Kieron Boyle, are experiencing a sea change. Consumers are increasingly choosing products based on their sustainability; Millennials are voicing a belief that corporations have a responsibility to improve society; and a greater number of investors look for social value in their portfolios.
The UK government wants to tap into and build upon this sea change as a way to deliver better public services.
“In a way, we’re looking at public service reform through the filter of socially motivated business,” said Kieron (London, New York, 2004-2008), who leads the UK Cabinet Office unit that works across the public, private, and civil sectors to create jobs, develop businesses, and drive innovation in tackling ongoing social problems.
“We explore ways in which finance can drive and accelerate social progress by increasing the supply of capital to the social marketplace, by growing the demand for that capital, and by creating an enabling environment for investment to occur.
“There are any number of social problems—aging, crime, health care, housing, take your pick—to be tackled, and many vulnerable groups and individuals for whom these problems are enduring and likely only to get more complicated. Further, while demands on services to the public increase, in terms both of expectations and usage, the financial wherewithal required to support them decreases.”
So, how to bridge that gap?
Charities, social enterprises, and smaller organizations, Kieron says, often have a deep, relational understanding of specific issues and can be effective in tackling those issues, but many struggle with problems of sustainability and scale, as it’s difficult for them to access capital. At the same time, there is a cohort of businesses and business-minded approaches with the potential to effectively tackle a wide range of social challenges.
“Which brings us to the crux of the social investment story—how to get capital to social organizations to help them innovate, scale, and grow,” Kieron said.
Investment capital, he explains, is available from many different sources. Among them are those that simply want to feel good about where they put their money and hope that it does good for the causes they care about; those that look to be financially effective, investing to help social causes grow, but with an expectation of a return on their investment; and those who may or may not care about specific social topics but who have calculated that the social sector offers strong investment opportunities.
“The net effect of all these people coming into the social investment space is that we’re starting to build a different set of actors to deal with some of our tougher social problems,” Kieron said. “It’s my job to bring those actors together.”
As such, his team has looked at tax relief to attract investment in high-growth-potential social organizations, and it has introduced a number of capacity-building programs—in the form of grants—to help various social organizations improve their ability to take on finance.
“These could be, for instance, to help an organization tell its story or to explain the impact it’s having, or they could be to help it improve its back-office operations,” he explained. “Traditionally, many social enterprises are better at the ‘social’ than the ‘enterprise’ part of their mission.”
Three-plus years into the job, Kieron has seen significant progress. The Investment and Readiness Fund, created to help midsized organizations to take on social investment and public service contracts, has generated £26 for every £1 of government grant money used. Big Society Capital bank, which in part uses funds from dormant bank accounts, has committed hundreds of millions of pounds in social investment. And the Social Impact Bond—the first of its type in the world—enables social organizations to sign on to payments-by-result contracts wherein they get paid upon delivery of an agreed-to outcome (there are now 31 such bonds in place in the UK, and more than 40 worldwide).
Kieron’s broader achievements—he was the UK representative to the G8 Social Impact Investment Taskforce and, in 2014, selected as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader–are all the more impressive when he notes that he finished university with no clear career goals.
“There are some out there blessed with knowing exactly what it is they want to do with their lives,” he said, “and then there are others, like me, for whom the story emerges over time.”
Sensing that he’d find it interesting to work on strategy, he was drawn to BCG, expecting to stay no more than a couple of years to “gain some experience, build up my tool kit, and figure out what it was that I wanted to do long term.”
A few weeks in the London office, he says, changed all that: “I thought, ‘Wow! This is really interesting; I love it!’ I identified fully with the work.”
Kieron stayed more than four years, leaving to take a government position with the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, a consultancy tackling similar problems and answering questions much like he had done at BCG. There was, however, one difference: he was now dealing with issues more closely related to public policy, in which he had become increasingly interested.
“I wouldn’t have gotten that job, had I not worked at BCG; I would not have known I was ready for it if it hadn’t been for my BCG experience,” he said. “There has been consistency in the roles I’ve played as my career has developed: coming into new areas; thinking strategically around complex questions; asking what it is we’re trying to do, how to achieve it, and who’s going to help us get there. Always the strategic approach, always solving problems—classic BCG stuff.”
He has also been impressed with BCG's social impact involvement. “I’m really pleased to see BCG deploying some of its brilliant resources, insight, and knowledge via its Social Impact practice,” Kieron said. “It’s now a better launch pad than ever for anybody thinking about a career in the social sector.”
That said, does he have any advice for such a person?
“First, think broadly because there are a lot of different ways—beyond politics and policy—that a young person can get involved in public benefit,” he said. “There’s an endless list of businesses, charities, social enterprises, NGOs, and governmental departments striving to create public impact.
“Second, use your networks, and definitely use your BCG networks. The firm and its alumni have many people at work in an array of public-impact roles, and I’ve found that they are easy to access and usually willing to spend a bit of time talking stuff through. Absolutely take advantage of that." (BCG's public-impact network now also includes the Centre for Public Impact, a not-for-profit foundation funded by the firm and launched in 2015.)
“There is something that I love and find really exciting about the social investment space,” concluded Kieron. “At its core, it brings a new degree of positive change to the intersection of the public sector, the private sector, and civil society where a whole range of new models are emerging. This is a fertile time to be exploring and making progress in areas where, at the end of the day, the goal is to make things better for some of the most vulnerable people out there.”