Social Purpose & Civil Society

by | May 2, 2023

There’s been a lot of excited talk about artificial intelligence of late. The pundits say ChatGPT is set to disrupt every sector imaginable.  The change will be bigger than the advent of the Internet! Maybe it’s true and robots will soon free our time to pursue sport, leisure, art, and our own passions and ideas. On the other hand, maybe our technofuture will be more like Skynet

This of course seems equally unlikely. We’ll probably land somewhere in the middle, with technology augmenting our lives, solving some problems while others get away from us because technology could never be the whole solution.

The tendency among tech enthusiasts to believe we can innovate our way through all the challenges we face, breaking through to some sort of AI / social-tech powered utopia bugs me. This faith in technology too easily lets us off the hook from taking action today. Why hurry to reduce our carbon footprints, for example, when carbon capture is just a few technical tweaks away? (Perhaps on the other side of a Series A investment round, for all the unicorn hunters!) John Kerry, the UN Climate Envoy considers this to be dangerous thinking.

Advocates for social purpose in business—myself included—can have a similar propensity to idealize: if all companies adopt a social purpose and align their assets and resources in support of that purpose, all will be right with the world. Right? If only…

It’s important we put the role of business—a powerful one, to be sure—into the context of society as a whole. Rather than putting our faith in the power of the market, we need to think more broadly. Not all problems will be solved with market-based solutions, just as not all the ills of society will be addressed by technological solutionism.

Some efforts are rightly the responsibility of government. These have always been the major projects that the private sector can’t afford, or the wide-reaching standards that help communities function. But not every problem can efficiently be solved by government, either.

Other efforts have been assumed by civil society organizations—nonprofits, charities, and philanthropy. These have traditionally been the issues of the margins—support for people, communities, and groups that are left on the sidelines, through no fault of their own. But again, civil society is not suited to solve every issue we face.

Certainly, the private, public, and third sectors all have their roles and value to add, independently of one another. When we see the three in the broader context of society as a whole, though, it can often be their points of overlap that hold some inspiring promise.

Unlocking value through cross-sectoral collaboration

This theme of collaboration isn’t new; it comes up frequently in our work advising clients in all three sectors. Despite most organizations’ best interests and efforts, most leaders aren’t good at cultivating effective collaborations. In fairness, it’s not easy.

Great collaborations require the careful setting and tending of trusting connections and the development and articulation of shared meaning between individuals and the groups they represent. They also require consistent and supportive attention to diversity—including but not limited to the myriad perspectives that smart people inevitably bring to any problem with collaborating to solve.

Then there’s the ability to share and mobilize knowledge across a group of collaborators—to gather intelligence, encourage the open exchange of information, and use current, high-quality evidence to influence wise action. And naturally, the best-laid plans go awry as soon as they meet reality! So collaborators need to navigate conflict and build support for change over and over again. No wonder so many either shy away in the first place, or burn out when collaborations don’t work.

Learning to collaborate

Learning how to collaborate is a vital first step. Last year, Junxion partnered with Strandberg Consulting to develop an Intersectoral Collaboration Assessment Tool for the Township of Langley, in Metro Vancouver. The report begins from the assumption—with which we strongly agree!—that “intersectoral collaboration is critical in tackling the challenges facing our society today.” It seeks “to advance our understanding of the factors that contribute to successful intersectoral collaborations” and presents a tool to assess collaborations’ effectiveness.

The report defines ‘Intersectoral Collaboration’ as an approach in which “partners and resources [are] aligned to drive systemic change on a common agenda.” Effective collaborations drive innovation, inclusion, efficiency, capacity-building, scalability, sustainability, and more.

Civic collaborations like this are not new, but there is a new model emerging that is focused on greater community or societal impact—rather than focusing on a single positive output. So they’re proactive, outcomes and process focused, meet the core functional needs of individual collaborators and the needs of the broader community, and they create a shared sense of ownership that can feel like the best promise of community engagement.

The Tool addresses themes of collaboration practices, inclusion and representation, process, enabling conditions, and the application of supportive technology. Canopy estimates that some 92 million tons of closing waste is generated globally each year.

Sharing a meaningful mission

We were delighted to read the news last month that our clients Canopy Planet and Intersport are partnering “to advance forest-friendly supply chains,” which is a powerful and meaningful mission.

Intersport Sweden, the leading sporting goods retailer in that country, with more than 100 stores, is “committing to eliminating any sourcing from the world’s Ancient and Endangered Forests from their textile supply chains and to advancing the production of low-carbon, circular, Next Generation alternatives.”

They’re joining a Canopy Planet-hosted collaboration that now boasts more than 500 of the world’s leading fashion brands. All are committed to protecting forests—which “has been identified by world-leading scientists as a major part of the climate solution.”

Alignment on such a big, bold mission is most often the starting point for effective collaborations. The clarity, measureability, and scale of the mission to protect the world’s forests is both audacious and achievable, making it an ideal nexus for collaboration.

Scale solutions to empower change

TRANSFORM is jointly hosted by Unilever; the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO); and EY. It was set up in 2015 “to accelerate impact enterprises, blending funding and support to deliver market-based solutions to the world’s biggest development challenges.”

To date, the initiative has supported over 100 projects in 17 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Along the way, they’ve attracted other partners, including Mastercard, Microsoft, and the Global Innovation Fund.

Their model is powerful in and of itself: rather than striving to deliver solutions directly, TRANSFORM is an enabling platform that conveys the expertise of the partners to those working ‘on the ground,’ and closest to the issues they aim to solve. Unilever’s expertise in marketing and distribution. Microsoft’s expertise in digital and e-commerce. FCDO’s convening power. By drawing on partners’ strengths, TRANSFORM enables change-makers to make the difference their communities need.

Confronting the greatest challenge of all time

“The Paris Agreement doesn’t mention fossil fuels. The COP27 outcome didn’t mention oil and gas. it’s time for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As I write this, I’m still feeling the frustration of reading this morning’s headline in The Guardian: “Oil and gas giants ExxonMobil and Chevron post record first-quarter profits.” Exxon’s exceeded USD $11.4 billion and Chevron’s $6.5 billion in the first quarter of 2023. How?…

The biggest contributor to the better-than-expected earnings came from strong production growth…. Exxon’s quarter was driven by new volumes of crude oil and fuels from the startup of new offshore developments and refining facilities.

“New offshore developments?” Have we failed to remember Pakistan’s floods? Australia’s fires? The five hurricanes that formed in the Pacific last year—all at the same time? Even Shell has conceded that fossil fuel growth is incompatible with limiting global heating to no more than 1.5°.

Great collaborations often align actors around a profound innovation. The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty aims to accelerate the transition to clean energy for everyone. Clearly, it takes its inspiration from the powerful nuclear non-proliferation treaties of the 20th century, adapting the model to support the greatest threat of the 21st century—and indeed, the greatest threat to humanity we have ever faced.

It has been endorsed by national, sub-national, and civic governments; the WHO and other health organizations; over 100 Nobel laureates; a huge list of civil society organizations; academics; scientists; faith organizations; youth organizations; and more. Such is the convening power of an exceptional idea.

Embarking on collaboration

Margaret Mead’s oft-quoted encouragement that we should “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world” provides the right inspiration for collaboration. It is the fact that they come together as a group aligned around a shared vision of a world made better that makes them successful.

Which is the group that you need to join? How might you bring your particular talents to the service of a great challenge and a compelling goal?

This post originally appeared on the Junxion website.