If you are sitting in a traffic jam, you can blame the car in front of you, and all the cars in front of you, for creating the traffic jam, or you can take responsibility for joining them, alone in your car at rush hour, and say, ‘I am the traffic jam.’
Emmanuel Faber, COO Danone
At Acumen, we think of ourselves as a “global” organization, but I was reminded this past Friday that the word has many meanings. I spoke at a conference at Indiana University called “Framing the Global,” designed to advance the conversation within the sphere of global studies. The academics who attended were all involved in exploring the social, political, economic and cultural consequences of transnational flows of people, products and ideas. I was invited as a practitioner to talk about Acumen’s work, our model for the kind of leadership needed in an increasingly interconnected world, and to share my own experiences forging new kinds of partnerships with the corporate sector. I was there to share some concrete examples of what could be done when you assumed the world was interconnected. This is a core element of Acumen’s guiding principles, and I believed our work would intersect directly with the issues raised at a conference on the question of what is “global.”
The Q&A session after my talk started out with a question about corruption, and moved on to challenge Acumen’s willingness to partner with corporations in light of the troubling history of multi-nationals in many of the markets where we work. Many of the questions held a real skepticism about whether corporations could help build a more equitable world, and they gave me pause.
The experience challenged me to consider very carefully how Acumen could help transform the history of exploitive corporate practices. I realized the importance of the work we are doing to forge a whole new kind of corporate partnership. It is not enough to say that our work brings real benefits to social enterprises and the people they serve. Our goal is to change the systems that have, in so many cases, led to the inequality and lack of options that we see. So, to be successful, we need to partner with corporations that are also interested in changing systems.
I was lucky enough to hear Emmanuel Faber, the COO of Danone, speak recently at a Wealth & Giving Forum event in New York focused on social impact. He openly challenged the notion that there are systems that exist beyond our control, and shared Danone’s work to partner with Grameen to innovate around product development, manufacturing and corporate investment. We see more and more companies willing to go outside their comfort zone and partner in creative ways in order to achieve breakthroughs (including through our partnership with Dow, which I wrote about here). We are now working with multiple global corporations based in both the US and the countries where we invest to provide financial and in-kind support to social enterprises that seek to scale. These companies are looking beyond traditional CSR to find new potential allies in the development of more inclusive and sustainable business models. But these are the early days of exploring the potential for collaboration between corporations and social enterprises.
We know there are systems, and drivers, and institutions that make the kind of radical change we want to see happen much harder, but my time at Indiana University served as a great reminder that if we want to create change, we can neither dismiss what is broken as “the way things are” nor can we blame it as though we are powerless to change it.
I am excited that Acumen is choosing to engage in the debate about the role of corporations in helping to build a more inclusive model of business and more dignified and equitable model. I believe we will discover a whole new set of solutions by engaging in this discussion from a position of openness and respect, even as we hold ourselves accountable to the people, and not the systems, with which we stand.
(originally posted in Acumen blog at http://acumen.org/blog/)