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How might big business fight poverty?

Puja Balachander is an outgoing 2018-19 Oxford MBA, a member of the inaugural Impact Lab, awardee of the Skoll Venture Awards 2019, and social entrepreneur. On Friday, 11th July, she attended the Business Fights Poverty conference at the Saïd Business School. Here she shares her own personal experience.

Having spent my former life working in the public sector, I have to admit I’ve often been frustrated by the narrative in business circles around social impact. The message is often implicitly or explicitly that government and philanthropy have failed, and therefore business needs to step in to save the day by bringing the “rigour” to the impact sector that it desperately needs.

I walked into the Business Fights Poverty 2019 conference prepared to hear the same rhetoric again, and found it refreshing that rather than painting business as the cure all, the conference theme this year was around “Purposeful Collaboration.” It brought together players from major corporations and the third sector, and emphasized a systems approach to problem solving, where business wasn’t the solution, but it was part of the system of solutions necessary to address the complex global challenges we face.

Yet I couldn’t help but notice the irony of what I saw compared to the expectations I had encountered in government. I was always told that we needed to adopt more rigorous “private sector” methods to understand the ROI of the resources the government spent on social impact. But the conference showed me that the private sector is being far more lackadaisical about their impact efforts than government ever was.

The need to move from defining a corporate purpose, to creating structures, processes and culture that actually facilitate that purpose were repeated in nearly every session, yet the examples cited and celebrated at the conference seemed tokenistic and only superficially impactful. The keynote speaker for the day from Unilever gave a presentation that seemed to equate socially inclusive and progressive marketing with Unilever’s social impact. In a corporate intrapreneurship workshop, speakers from major companies told us about their social innovation initiatives to surface ideas and potential ventures from within their employees. And while I’m sure there might be positive social outcomes that come from these efforts, they sounded more like employee engagement than social innovation.

I’m not sure that celebrating these efforts is helping move companies towards more ambitious and rigorous social impact efforts. At the same time, I’m aware that being overly critical of companies’ incremental efforts could be counter-productive. Incremental progress is better than none at all, and who’s to say that companies won’t throw up their hands and figure that if they’ll be criticized, either way, they might as well go back to a pure profit-maximizing focus?

So rather than a critique, I left the Business Fights Poverty conference with questions. How do we encourage companies to be more ambitious and rigorous about their social impact efforts? Celebration and commendation like we did at the conference felt disingenuous, and like they wouldn’t catalyse the urgency and scale of transformation needed to address the challenges we face. Critique has the potential to scare companies off, or put them on the defensive, stopping them from engaging with the academics, public servants, and third-sector players that might be able to help them in their transformation. Is there a middle ground between these that might put companies under an optimal level of pressure, and provide the optimal support that will spur them forward in their impact journeys?

Puja Balachander, 2018-19 Oxford MBA