November’s Crowd Forum fell on the evening of the US election, where ‘broken society’ has become the central narrative. During the night of social business reflections, two main question emerged – is the society actually broken, and what’s the role of business in its cause and solutions?
I think that business gives itself a hard time about society being broken. And I think it’s also a bit presumptuous to think it is responsible for it, too. Because that implies that it’s alone in having to come up with the solution – and I think that’s too much for any one sector or player to think up. The private sector may have resource but it’s never going to ‘fix’ a ‘broken’ society. By itself at least.
I see the cause as well as the agency for the solution lying more widely. We’re all part of society; communities, the voluntary sector, government, philanthropic funders, the private sector, local government. We’re all responsible. And we’re all responsible for the solution, too – and we all have the opportunity and capability to come together to find that.
That doesn’t mean we need to abandon our mission and aims. A business must aim for profit – that’s the purpose. That’s not ‘bad’ –it just needs to be tempered with some ‘good’ as well. And for a charity it’s about doing ‘good’ but we should also do it ‘well’ – too many of us are guilty of not operating efficiently or collaborating and that’s just as damaging as not doing ‘good’ in the first place.
We need to shift the language and the mind set in both the private and the not for profit sectors if we’re going to imagine radical new approaches to fixing a broken society. Business could do well to move from ‘what’s our purpose’ and ‘how do I give something back’ to ‘what are we capable of’ and ‘how do we do good business’. The challenge for the social sector is to coordinate what it does better, communicate and deliver effectively, and explore sustainable funding models.
But above all I think we should observe that the boundaries between the sectors are blurring. Institutions in each sector are thinking imaginatively about the role they do (and can) play. Catch22 calls itself a ‘social business’. Businesses are thinking about their social purpose. Government is outsourcing services. Grant funders are investing in the sustainability of communities. ‘Digital’ is changing all the rules about who has access to whom and perceived wisdoms about business models.
We should continue on this journey, move beyond the traditional perceptions we have about where our boundaries lie (certainly if we are serious about doing good into the future). Therein will lie the partnerships and joint ventures and corporate social responsibility programmes of the future that will fix society. Solutions that bring the private, public and social sectors together.
Let’s just hope we can all get there fast enough!