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You are not alone

By Martin Barrow

22 January 2016
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How do you solve really big problems? The answer never changes but always bares repeating – by working together. There is of course something very romantic about a lone visionary labouring away in a lab / garage / garden shed to conjure up game-changing inventions, innovations and insights, but the reality is far more likely to involve a lot of hard work and incremental development through collaboration with others – but that can be a less compelling narrative.

It can be very tempting for organisations, particularly charities, to use that Hollywood narrative when engaging others on their work, to really big up their lone role as pioneer and innovator, but it isn’t always sustainable, realistic or even true.

In the last few years, we have seen the hard and fast distinctions between charities, businesses and the public sector blur and splinter. It wasn’t what he meant but George Osborne was right when he said “We are all in this together”.

Society now has at its disposal the tools, including funding, technology and models of collaboration, which are needed to address some of the most urgent challenges. Charities should be playing a key role but they have to be open to and proactive about the collaboration.

Evidence that some of the world’s most intractable problems – for example, preventable illnesses, inequitable access to healthcare and the shortage of clean water – can be solved is galvanising those who advocate change, whoever and whatever they might be. Their ambition is to make the most significant impact at the lowest cost in the shortest period of time and it is an open question whether not-for-profits are able or willing to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit that is needed to meet these aspirations.

This new reality also creates opportunities as well as challenges for businesses, who are coming under increasing pressure from consumers as well as governments to accept greater responsibility to help create a fairer society. For example, the new National Living Wage requires employers to bear a greater share of the burden of living costs, enabling the Government to cut tax credits.

But as our extensive report, Bringing Business to Society , shows consumers have greater expectations for business to be involved in solving social issues than business leaders have of themselves. For example, 70 per cent of consumers agree that business should be involved in tackling climate change, compared to 56 per cent of business leaders. Similarly, 63 per cent of consumers expect business to help tackle social inequality, compared to just 45 per cent of business leaders.

Consumers and companies do agree which are the priority social issues for business to address: helping people back into employment, supporting local communities, and tackling environmental issues. But there are dramatic differences between consumers and business leaders about whether business should address some of the more intractable social issues, including responding to humanitarian disasters, providing better care for older people and tackling homelessness. And younger consumers are even more engaged with some of the toughest social issues, suggesting that companies hoping to connect with younger audiences have plenty of work to do.

Younger business leaders also believe that they should help society more widely, particularly around obesity and tackling homelessness, according to our report. 51 per cent of business leaders under 35 see taking steps to reduce levels of obesity as a priority, compared to 28 per cent of those over 55. For homelessness the figures are 50 per cent and 19 per cent respectively.

Corporate culture can make it easier for businesses to have a clear plan, set strong goals and openly demonstrate progress. One of the biggest challenges is to establish, effective, long-term partnerships with organisations who share their goals but are beholden to structures that appear to be in conflict with the business dynamic. At Forster we have 20 years experience helping businesses and charities to work together to achieve meaningful social change, supporting partnerships such as Astellas and the Fistula Foundation, and Standard Chartered and Sightsavers. These partnerships need time, commitment and a willingness to compromise, which is perhaps the biggest challenge for both parties.