The controversies over ESG abound. Are regulators helping? Are companies greenwashing? Are employees facing unintended consequences?

And as the complexities mount, fear grows among business leaders on how to navigate the ESG minefield. It’s getting harder and harder to do the right thing for all stakeholders.

It shouldn’t be this way. By simply increasing awareness, empathy, and collaboration, we can create breakthrough solutions. And there’s an easy way for business leaders to start.

Business leaders have a rich trove of knowledge, skills, insights, and connections that can be highly leveraged and channeled for good use. In fact, the knowledge that each individual holds due to their unique experiences and wisdom gained through time is one of the most unactualized human assets we have. What if that underutilized knowledge could be transferred?

Think of how Airbnb has revolutionized the housing market and how Uber has revolutionized underused cars. Isn’t knowledge an asset that could be repurposed, recycled, and regenerated? A sustainable resource that does not get depleted?

Business leaders are in an excellent position to share their knowledge with social ventures around the world working on innovative solutions addressing the pressing challenges of our time. These entrepreneurs or local operators may have designed a solution and minimum viable product but may need help with scaling. All organizations, after all, whether they are for-profit businesses or nonprofits, face similar challenges. These include forecasting accuracy, strategic planning, managing growth, leveraging partnerships, building awareness, diversifying revenue streams, and more. Couldn’t business leaders from diverse industries and experiences lend a hand by sharing their knowledge, applicable to an entirely different sector?

The concept of skilled volunteerism is not new. Since the 1980s, Harvard Business School has been operating Community Partners programs in major markets designed to inspire its alumni to donate their management skills to support nonprofits. Taproot Foundation, another example, has been promoting the pro bono movement among skilled professionals for 20 years.

The past decade has seen an explosion of new organizations dedicated to increasing employee satisfaction and engagement by facilitating rewarding experiences where employees can leverage their skills to support social organizations.

But leveraging the talent of business executives can arguably accelerate impact the most. Their strategic lens and contacts could facilitate significant action. There is existing programming designed specifically for busy C-suite and senior leaders who only have a few hours, not months, of time to give. And those couple of hours is all it takes to potentially change the trajectory of a social venture.

Organizations such as Dignity Moves, which provides interim housing for the homeless in the U.S., are shining testimonies of this strategy. Three more include CorpsAfrica, which recruits African volunteers to lead impact projects in rural African villages, Inteleos which promotes global maternal health, and Project Alianza, which reshapes rural education with women-led solutions in Latin America.

Less acknowledged is the transformative effect “gifting knowledge” has on the giver. This has had a profound impact on volunteer business leaders. Some have decided to pivot and move to the social impact sector, some became motivated to join nonprofit boards, some became serial volunteers, and yes, some turned into new active donors or investors in impact. For others, the experience has informed a new outlook and management style.

Engaging and learning about a new sector builds deeper awareness, empathy, and a collaborative spirit. There is no doubt “the giver becomes the receiver,” and the leader becomes more equipped with new personal experiences in navigating the complex waters of social and environmental impact having interacted with social venture leaders. There is true 360-degree knowledge exchange.

We must remain positive. Beyond selling goods and services, business leaders do want to create a better world, whether that be by mitigating climate change or ensuring workers are gainfully employed. It’s just hard to find the time, manage competing priorities, and respond to the multitude of stakeholders.

The nuanced fields of ESG and CSR are tricky to traverse but shouldn’t be that daunting. Engaging directly with social ventures on solving their challenges by leveraging a leader’s existing knowledge and channeling it for social good is a simple first step to building understanding. We then build more authentic relationships and find inspiration to create more winning solutions.

With the marketplace filled with so many organizations facilitating connections, it’s easy to dive in. And it just takes a few hours of time from the comfort of your home or office. Business leaders should jump in and start sharing their knowledge now. The global economy would greatly benefit from it.

Elaine Lum MacDonald


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