The importance of engaging the private sector in efforts to address social problems is increasingly apparent. Wicked problems defy single-point solutions, and no single organization or sector working in isolation can solve them. This widespread understanding is matched by a growing number of businesses exploring the integration of social impact into their core strategies. “We’re seeing companies interested in moving from chipping away at problems to solving them,” as Tom Murray, vice president of corporate partnerships at the Environmental Defense Fund, put it. “If you are talking about … climate change, over-fishing, or deforestation, no one can push solutions on their own—it will take collaboration across industries and supply chains. And these efforts are business driven, not driven by values or altruism.”
The steady drum beat for more cross-sector collaboration and the recognition of the importance of private sector participation raises a set of important questions for any social change leader focused on mobilizing an ecosystem to address systemic challenges: How can a network of groups and institutions, not just a single organization, successfully compel private sector organizations to be part of their effort? How can we shift the conversation about addressing social needs from one based on a moral imperative to one that reveals a market incentive? And ultimately, how can we design an aligned action network that delivers both business value and drives social impact?
These are a few of the questions we set out to answer in a recent study on the power of involving business in social impact networks. We identified and analyzed more than 50 social impact networks that involve both civil society and the private sector, scoured the current literature, drew on the experience of both of our organizations in supporting and facilitating these networks, and interviewed more than 20 practitioners with direct experience leading or participating in networks that involve companies.
What we came to understand was deceptively simple: If we want to see more cross-sector collaborations, we have to get better at crossing sectors.
The exciting and encouraging news is that there is already a range of networks in operation across the globe, where the private sector plays substantive roles. We found cross-sector networks designed to engage global seafood supply chains in rebuilding depleted fish stocks, collective efforts to reduce deforestation, and collaborations purpose-built to surface new market-based solutions to building healthy and sustainable food systems, to name a few. The challenge going forward is enabling more organizations to meaningfully and effectively engage with the private sector. To reduce the perceived chasm between the social and private sectors, social sector leaders need the skills and courage to act as bridge builders. A more capable and confident social sector can make engaging the private sector a normal part of systemic problem-solving strategies.
What we came to understand was deceptively simple: If we want to see more cross-sector collaborations, we have to get better at crossing sectors. What this entails, at a very tactical level, is that social change leaders intent on recruiting the private sector into their network craft business cases that clearly articulate the value of engaging. A business leader needs to see a clear path to participation, sense how that participation will serve a high-priority business need, and feel confident that their commitment is both well-defined and tightly bound.
This post is excerpted from ‘The Calculus for Commitment: The Power of Involving the Private Sector in Social Impact Networks‘ in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR). Read the full post.