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You are not alone

By Kate Parker

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. Businesses and charities have key roles to play but they have to be open to and proactive about the collaboration.

Evidence that some of the world’s most intractable problems – the ones we’ve identified as Sustainable Development Goals, for example, preventable illnesses, inequitable access to healthcare and the shortage of clean water – can be solved if 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 it is this new report, Measuring Up, from the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD) that shows the need for cross sector collaboration is not being met. It highlights a significant danger of the UK quality of life getting worse if action is not taken, with poverty and inequality continuing to deepen. Our previous research has shown that consumers have greater expectations for business to be involved in solving these big issues than business leaders have of themselves. What we need now is clear Government leadership supported by action from businesses, charities and individuals in order to ensure the UK achieves the SDGs as quickly as possible.

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, KPMG and National Numeracy, and Standard Chartered and Sightsavers. These partnerships need time, commitment and a willingness to compromise, which is perhaps the biggest challenge for both parties.