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We Can’t Solve Our Problems One at a Time

We all remember that moment in our childhoods where we came independently to the realization that if a genie suddenly appeared to grant us three wishes, we could subvert the system entirely by asking first for infinite wishes. The genie loophole, we’ll call it.

And so when asked “what problem would you solve if you could only pick one?” I would choose to employ the genie loop-hole: I would fix the one problem that would solve all the others. This is an ethos deeply embedded into the DNA of The Rockefeller Foundation, what our visionary founder John D. Rockefeller called in the early 20th century ‘curing ills at their roots.’

But today we don’t have the luxury of curing problems one at a time. For one, our problems are too intertwined to untangle them one-by-one. Second, philanthropy doesn’t have enough resources to solve all the world’s problems alone. We’re going to need partners in the private sector with deeper wells of capital. And while we’ve made some good progress in elevating public-private partnerships for social and environmental good—the movement behind Michael Porter’s concept of shared value and our own work to galvanize impact investing comes to mind—we still operate too often in our silos.

This isn’t just a disservice for the people who can benefit from our collaboration, it also comes at a cost to businesses that don’t take the long view and leverage opportunities to capture value in emerging markets, or invest in the well-being of their people and the planet.

Of course, many companies are doing this well. Last month I was moderating a panel on “climate action as good economics” at the Clinton Global Initiative, and the CEO of IKEA, Peter Agnefjäll, said his company’s perspective is not just about minimizing harm to the environment or communities, but being “people and planet positive.” And this approach is getting good marks not just from customers, but supply-chain partners as well.
Starbucks is another example of a corporate partner who is helping to lead on social problems. This summer, The Rockefeller Foundation and LeadersUp joined with Starbucks to hold an innovation lab to address the youth employment crisis. The result—an innovative new strategy for hiring young people, just in its core business, but along its supply chain, which is a robust ecosystems of employers of all sizes.

Philanthropy can fix this one thing by providing our risk capital—what our tax-advantaged dollars are meant to be. That means we can provide the first layer of investment that will de-risk deals for others with lower risk tolerance.

So if I could “fix” one thing it would be to clear the remaining hurdles that keep private sector players from seeing the immense value in building products, providing services, or investing in opportunities that deliver social or environmental impact, and as a result, their own bottom line. At The Rockefeller Foundation we are putting our philanthropic super powers to work to build up the case studies and be a go-to partner. Because in a world without genies, we can use all the partners we can get.

Photo credit: The Clinton Foundation

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