Porter Novelli

Note: The following is a guest post from Bill Novelli, the first in a series based on his comments from a co-convening of Social Capital and Points of Light. Most of the attendees were corporate execs, with a smattering of nonprofit execs included. The event was a joint session with Social Capital and Points of Light that sought to understand how to approach partnerships and where to go from there. It took place in Alexandria, VA on Feb. 23.

Bill NovelliChange is happening, faster and faster. As we meet here today, the world is changing around us. The digital world is growing exponentially. Audiences are more informed than ever before – but not better informed. There are more channels to reach stakeholders, but it is harder and harder to really communicate.

World populations are growing older, not just in North America, but everywhere. The graying of the industrialized world has significant implications for health and economic outlooks.

South to north migration here and in Europe and elsewhere is disrupting societies. Major threats, including war, pandemics and climate change are before us. Economic uncertainties are disrupting markets.

All this is creating substantial change. And there are other causes, as well. One that we are all familiar with is the idea that those in pain, eventually gain. That is, groups on the bottom of the social order, or in distress, get or create an opportunity and break through. Civil rights, women’s suffrage and feminism, and marriage equality– are all examples.

Change also comes about though classic heroic leadership. Candace Lightner and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, William Wilberforce, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and others are powerful examples.

All these things cause change, and often in combinations of shifting resources, technology, economics, demographics and leadership.

Good fortune plays a role, of course, but we can’t count on it. A story in the Washington Post a couple of years ago asserted that a newly discovered bacterium is apparently eating much of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But no such luck; the story turned out to be false. We’ll have to do it ourselves.

I have a favorite saying, a haiku: “Problems worthy of attack, prove their worth by attacking back.” These are the big, tough, nearly intractable challenges that are addressed in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and elsewhere. Solutions to these problems don’t result from sitting on our hands, and muddling through is not a strategy.

You corporate executives here today are developing and engaging in strategies for your companies, for business overall and with civil society and government to create social collaborations for good. That is, to contribute to positive social change in a way that advances your corporate goals and creates business value.

This business value includes : improving how shareholders view your corporate performance; increasing revenues and reducing costs; enhancing your competitive position; deepening customer relationships; and improving the commitment and engagement of your employees.

An example of a company recognizing these opportunities is Philips, which says, “As a global health and well-being company, we firmly believe that the challenges around the health and well-being of our planet offer substantial business opportunities, creating value for our company as well as society at large.”

Another example of this self-enlightenment approach is seen in a report issued by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, which states, “The circular economy offers a wealth of opportunity for the…business community. ‘Trash to Treasure: Changing Waste Streams to Profit Streams’ shares new findings on how, by reducing and eliminating waste, businesses can increase profitability, boast efficiency and unleash innovation.

The opportunity to create business value through creating societal value – with many stakeholders benefiting — is one of the most powerful forces driving growth in the global economy.

Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, famously said that we should “never doubt that a small group of citizens can change the world. Indeed,” she said, “it’s the only thing that ever has.”

That may be true, but in today’s world is it is especially true if that small group becomes a very large group, a network of power and persuasion. I think we all realize that no sector – public, private or civil society – is big and strong enough to solve the huge societal problems of today.

Partnerships and alliances across sectors, with multiple stakeholders, can make a lasting difference. The topic today is where partnerships are heading, what good partnerships look like, and how to make them better.

I have worked in many partnerships across sectors, including with the Business Roundtable, the National Federation of Independent Business, labor unions, public health organizations, federal and state governments and companies in many industries. Some of these partnerships have been led by nonprofits, some by government and some were alliances of business interests. Most were cross-sector. A few of them were truly collections of “strange bedfellows.”

Currently, I co-lead C-TAC, the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care — a national alliance of health insurance companies, hospital systems, consumer organizations, faith-based groups and others – to reform advanced illness and end of life care in the United States.

And at Georgetown, in our Global Social Enterprise Initiative, we partner with numerous companies, including our founding partner, Bank of America, and across all sectors to address such challenges as economic development, hiring and retaining persons with disabilities, financial security for disadvantaged older people and international development.

From my vantage point, I’d like to offer you six trends that I believe are taking shape in partnerships today. Not all of them are especially positive, and they won’t affect all alliances, but I hope that they will be of interest and value as you continue your work to advance your organizational goals and make the world a better place.

Come back Tuesday for the first of these trends, with more to come over the next few weeks.