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The corporate social opportunity — a holistic framework for social mobility

8 min read

True North

Classroom stack of books and pencil pot

How can businesses work with communities to deliver real, lasting change?

With social mobility in the UK continuing to fall, Kris Mackay — co-chair of the True North Advisory Council working group for Purpose & Social Impact and Associate for Well North Enterprises CIC — explains her organisation’s 360-degree approach to tackling socioeconomic inequalities. 

Here, she shares examples of how Well North Enterprises CIC works to improve social mobility and provides inspiration for other businesses to follow.


The state of UK social mobility

From a business perspective, poverty and productivity are clearly linked. The National Institute of Health reports that poverty influences productivity in at least two different ways. Firstly, the impact it has on physical and cognitive performance through poor nutrition, low education and physical health conditions. Secondly, psychological aspects of poverty that lead to counterproductive decision making in relation to risk, time management, motivation and aspiration. 

What this means is that good health is good business. If we could unlock more talent across our region, we could transform both productivity and the wider economy. 

This is easier said than done. In fact, a report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies last year found that it’s harder today than at any point in the past 50 years to move upwards in terms of earnings distribution and social mobility, with a significant gap between London and the North of England.

However, the Social Mobility Commission found in its 2023 State of the Nation report that “there is no simple pattern of well-off and badly-off areas”. London and Greater Manchester, for example, show both high levels of sociocultural advantage and childhood poverty. The report concluded that “any area-based approach to tackling social mobility must take into account variation within areas, as well as variation among areas.”

To deliver meaningful social value, you have to accept that all places are different — and any effective social value delivery framework must be flexible to respond to this. It’s important to enable an entrepreneurial culture that learns by doing, regularly measuring impact. The same Social Mobility Commission report explains that accurate data is fundamental to avoid misdirection on “expensive and lengthy policy interventions”.

Seeing the whole picture is the difference between creating places that genuinely work and ones that don’t — despite everyone’s best intentions. The first question for an organisation or network that wants to tackle any significant socioeconomic challenge is 'are you seeing the full picture'?


360-degree approach to social change

I’m an associate for Well North Enterprises CIC — a social enterprise focused on improving health outcome for communities through practical place-based projects and entrepreneurial approaches. We believe it’s all about people and relationships, not policies and structures, when building solutions to deliver real change for communities trapped in cycles of poverty and deprivation.  

We’ve partnered with Prospect Business Consulting on a mission to create a ‘360 Degree Society’ — a movement that puts people at the heart of placemaking and creates a culture of learning through doing.

Together, we want to grow action-focused, entrepreneurial partnerships with people and organisations who are passionate about transforming the places that matter to them — raising the health and wealth outcomes for communities across the UK. Our approach looks to create long-term partnerships between businesses and the communities they serve, looking at where social value can be delivered and using data to both inform our interventions and measure their impact.

Ours is a methodology that has been developed over 40 years and co-created with experts in the fields of business, social value, public sector and community. It provides a clear and flexible framework that can enable companies to adopt and implement an environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategy that delivers meaningful impact for people, place and planet while working to create business benefits. We actively identify the spaces where corporate and social needs align and work deeply in this space — what we term ‘Corporate Social Opportunity’. 

While ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) is a well-defined and established term, language matters — and the framework of ‘responsibility’ is unhelpful, evoking a tick-box requirement for organisations to follow and leading to a tag-on approach that isn’t ingrained into business strategy. 

By defining this as an ‘opportunity’, we can move beyond tokenistic action towards deeply connecting businesses with the communities they care about to work on shared solutions to real world problems.


How and where we deliver

The precursor to the 360 Degree Society, which launched earlier this year, has been a decade of work delivering the Well North Programme: ten place-based innovation projects in the North of England. Each ‘Pathfinder’ team was tasked with delivering real change on the ground and partnering with businesses to unlock Corporate Social Opportunity at a local level.

Each Well North Pathfinder team tailored its approach to the location it operated in, taking a focus that best aligned with the needs of that community. 

In Bradford, projects broadly honed-in on health and wellbeing. In Doncaster, it was funding for community groups and spaces. In Newcastle and Gateshead, it was arts and literacy. In Oldham, it was reducing food poverty and encouraging enterprise around food.

Meanwhile, Rotherham has been exploring how social value can be created for communities through the development of new homes, with a long-term partnership developed between local schools and businesses, including volume housebuilders Barratt Homes and materials manufacturers Ibstock plc.


This strategic partnership has delivered three significant projects over the past four years:

1. The North Star Science School Partnerships

Facilitated by the Work-Wise Foundation, Barratt Homes and Ibstock plc build long term partnerships with local schools. Together they worked with young people to co-design and deliver workshops to year eight and nine students from over 70 schools across South Yorkshire. Programmes included visits to local factories, a hands-on brick-making workshop, insights from Ibstock’s apprentices, visits to Barratt’s unique zero-carbon concept home at Salford University and a showcase of the latest technology available for sustainable housing.

2. Waverley Build It Green Project

This project introduced young people at Waverley Primary School to businesses, to develop an understanding of sustainability in construction. The project worked across two academic years with students in year four who went on into year five. The project was launched with an assembly and a series of hands-on workshops that introduced the children to sustainability in construction, before a more in-depth project led by the school’s teachers explored what it means to build a sustainable city. 

3. Barratt Insight House

This partnership project between Barratt, Ibstock and 360 Degree Society — which opened in May 2024 — gives young people the opportunity to see how some of the discussed technologies and sustainable ideas are put together in the fabric of a real house, showcasing how sector leaders are making homes greener and more environmentally friendly. It’s an interactive experience with videos, a workbook, models, cutaways, wall displays and activities. It’s also a place where people (young and old) can learn more about how we can do our bit to help the environment.

Find out more about the impact of each of these projects and how they could be evolved in future.


How True North can deliver on the Corporate Social Opportunity

Change cannot be rushed. It takes time and requires honing your offer as it embeds to ensure that you’re making the biggest difference and the most of your investment. 

That’s why I was attracted to True North as a network and campaign. 

Like Well North Enterprises and our partners, it’s taking a 360-degree approach to social change, understanding that it can’t be achieved in silos. Successful places come about when people, communities and organisations — all working differently — collaborate to create better outcomes.

True North is about seeing the full picture, accepting that all places are different and there’s no single solution. That’s why the advisory council — which I’m thrilled to be a part of as co-chair of the Purpose & Social Impact working group — is exploring how it can bring people together to accelerate the impact that businesses can have in their communities, working with Open Innovations as a data partner to capture the state of play for social mobility across the region.

We’ll be using that data to inform the activity that each working group focuses on in the coming months and, through the True North open data dashboard, we can ensure that the most up to date and accurate data is constantly fed in to try and reduce gaps.

Both the private and public sectors have never been under more pressure from the external environment to deliver socioeconomic transformation. Yet taking a quick fix and one-size-fits-all approach is exactly what has led to widening social mobility gaps. Creating the time and space to think differently, work collaboratively and create a culture of innovation is a very real challenge for every leader right now — but one that we all must rise to.


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