This is not to say that private-sector leaders have all the answers, or that a market-based approach can solve all social problems. “Private-sector leaders can bring some efficiency to organizational structures,” says Age. “But that’s rarely the main stumbling block with these big, intractable problems. Almost invariably, there is some deep human nature to the challenges, and social problems require building social power within those systems.”

Some even think business should steer clear of such problems: In a 2020 survey by Independent Sector, a US coalition of nonprofits, foundations, and corporate givers, business came at the bottom of the list of institutions seen as best positioned to address societal challenges.

Yet for business people shifting their focus to social problems—whether through public-private partnerships, by creating new organizations, or by inspiring change from within large corporations—gleaning insights from both worlds can prove highly effective.

At their nonprofit FUEL Trust, Campbell and Luyckx saw an opportunity to work with South Africa’s Department of Education and private-sector food distributions systems rather than working within government themselves or independently through a nonprofit service provider. “If you’re trying to help the government whose job it is to do this, that’s different from an NGO running a soup kitchen, where you’re doing it outside of any system,” Campbell says.

They soon realized, however, that this would not be easy. “We were chartered accountants with a very green-behind-the-ears understanding of how government works,” explains Campbell. “What we underestimated was the protocols and policies that go with government procurement.”

The solution was to empower program managers and field workers to measure their own effectiveness and to take measures to fix the problems—whether in terms of food nutrition levels or on-time meal delivery. Here, the FUEL team turned to their business background and their understanding of the power of key performance indicators. “Having scoring mechanisms is one of the things I took from Nando’s,” Campbell says. “We built red, yellow, and green schools” to clearly communicate which cafeterias were failing, middling, or excellent, “just like we had red, yellow, and green restaurants.”

Read the full article about business leadership in the nonprofit sector by Sarah Murray at Stanford Social Innovation Review.