Who Better to Solve the Biggest Problems?

October 13, 2015

A recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation review critiqued the United Nations for the approach it took to some of its goals: Eliminating poverty as number one. The authors argue that, to truly be sustainable, the goal should have been to solve the system and social issues that create poverty in the first place. It suggests looking at root cause, not outcomes, to solve our biggest problems.

And while the development industry might be slow to adopt this mindset, successful companies are experts at identifying root cause issues, and innovating to solve them.

At the US Chamber Foundations’s Corporate Citizenship Center conference, companies Abbott, Deloitte, and Intel shared insights about solving global challenges by tackling root cause in an invigorating plenary session The Root of It All: Navigating Interconnectedness of Social Challenges.

“Corporate citizenship is not about giving more money and more product, it is about transforming businesses to operate responsibly” 
- Kathy Pickus, Divisional Vice President, Global Citizenship and Policy, Abbott

In this panel, speakers shared how their corporate investments, solutions, and partnerships were focused on solving root cause issues and developing sustainable solutions.

Just a few of the more relevant takeaways are as follows:

If Not Us, Who? If Not Now, When?

As it stands, business leaders believe that sustainability issues can provide short and long-term bottom line benefits. Just a few of the benefits of include innovation, market development, marketing, and employee engagement and retention. Indeed, there is a plethora of research highlighting how businesses benefit by being socially responsible.

Beyond the benefits, however, the speakers shared two other not-as-obvious concepts as to why businesses should invest in solving root cause issues.

1. They learn about them before most others

In an interesting example, panel moderator Michael Jacobson, Director, Corporate Responsibility Office at Intel, shared how early in its growth, Intel was traveling globally looking for manufacturing partners. In the search for supply chain partners overseas, it was exposed to multiple governments and partners that were eager to partner with Intel. In conducting research on viable partners, it learned intimate details about geographies, and built relationships with organizations that had strong incentives to develop in order to partner with Intel. Simply put, because companies have more resources to invest in audits through its supply and distribution chains, it can learn about system issues before they become well known. A more recent example of this is the STEM education initiatives, which has had companies proactively supporting STEM programs before large scale government support.

2. Business leaders have a moral imperative to solve large scale problems

Beyond fiduciary responsibility, many business leaders also feel a personal responsibility to do the right thing. While this can be challenging with publicly traded companies, many companies, like Intel and Unilever, have taken a strong stance in more sustainable sourcing programs simply because it’s the right thing to do.

There are right and wrong ways to engage in corporate citizenship

Once the case was clearly built as to why companies should be investing in responsibility initiatives, the panel dove into more practical details about the role of responsibility professionals.

Kathy Pickus, Divisional Vice President, Global Citizenship and Policy, Abbott, was quick to highlight that it’s not enough for responsibility professionals to do philanthropy well. She went on to explain that “in your role at a company, it’s already expected that you are good at giving money away, but this is not a sustainable business activity. Responsibility professionals should really be working on aligning disparate efforts across their companies to create inclusive business models.

This was a resounding theme throughout the entire conference, and was echoed by the following speaker, Blair Taylor, Chief Community Officer of Starbucks, that “to be sustainable, your efforts must be anchored in the tenants of corporate America” – meaning they must make business sense.

To Solve Root Causes, Use Your Networks

William D. Eggers, Global Public Sector Research Director, Deloitte and Author of The Solution Revolution, gave a compelling example of the role of business in solving system challenges. Specifically, he talked about the major accomplishment of halving malaria deaths in this past decade.

To accomplish this feat, he shared how foundations, businesses, and governments committed capital to help build a marketplace for potential solutions to malaria. This marketplace enabled nonprofits, startups, and social enterprises to access financing in order to create low-cost preventative and diagnostics solutions. He then highlighted how field partners and corporations provided additional capital and expertise to launch marketing, education, and distribution campaigns to make a very measurable impact.

Indeed, as challenges become harder and more connected than ever, it’s vital that public, private, NGO, and social enterprise partners rally together to solve them.

It’s Time for More Businesses to Step Up

One of the really enlightening aspects of this talk was just how far into the “depths of business operations” some responsibility leaders have taken their initiatives. Pickus shared how, at Abbott, she is in constant communication with almost all business groups, including the Chief Economist to analyze how different sustainability programs can have material impacts to its business, partners, and planet. She emphasized that we “must create systems that are not reliant on charity”.

“If we keep trying the same models, we’re going to get the same results. Who better than the business community to take some risks” 
– Kathy Pickus
Mr. Eggers enforced this point, sharing how companies have baked in skills-based volunteering into leadership development initiatives, as outlined in his article, The Purpose Dirven Professional. Specifically, by partnering with social impact organizations, companies can provide technical support while giving their employees a stretch leadership development learning opportunity – benefitting the organization, employee, and sponsoring company.

To help responsibility professionals act on these theories, Eggers shared Deloitte’s Corporate  Social Impact Archetypes, Rockefeller’s Innovation Guide and the Monitor Institute’s Community Philanthropy Toolkit.

Government, Nonprofits, and Social Enterprises Have to Step Up, Too

During the Q&A, and also during the “plenary to participant” session where the main stage conversation continued with more ample discussion, representatives of governments and nonprofits posed some challenging questions to the panel about power dynamics and the stakeholder relationships that develop in the systems-style approach being advocated by these companies.

The panelists were clear in their responses – If partner organizations just ask for money, there will always be power dynamics. To create sustainable, system-level solutions that solve root cause, every partner needs to bring a clear and unique benefit to the partnership. These benefits can range in things like innovation insights, talent development opportunities, customer connections, and/or geographical understanding, but they have to be something the other partners need.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Throughout the panel and discussion after, the panelists shared some very practical ideas useful to anybody within a corporate setting leading or supporting sustainability efforts, including:

  • Integrate – With all business functions to understand their drivers and barriers, and serve as a thought partner about how sustainability efforts can help
  • Share – Collect data and share it with stakeholders, highlighting the areas where you do need more support. Invite potential partners to solve your challenges by giving them data to make on-target recommendations.
  • Partner – Create meaningful, deep, and long-lasting partnerships with nonprofit, social enterprise, and government entities around a common cause. Openly sharing data, involve each other in strategy sessions, and share fundraising and resource plans and challenges.

From my personal standpoint, there is a massive opportunity and risk with this more inter-connected approach. The risk lies in the fact that responsibility is shared and ownership can be ambiguous. It also leaves the room for political issues that might arise as it relates to attribution and claims as to which party was responsible for what. But the opportunity here far outweighs the risk. The real opportunity here is that more and more companies, governments, and organizations are opening their minds and doors do these cross-sector partnerships, and this means that any type of organization anywhere in the world has the potential to unify others around a root cause and solve some of our most pressing challenges – as long as they prove a sustainable impact is possible to all parties.