Are the SDGs the North Star for Corporations?

Each September, delegations of public and private sector representatives from almost every country meet at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to discuss how best to work together to solve the world’s most endemic political, economic and security challenges. On the development front, a framework called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) serves as a collective action agenda, with progress measured against 17 primary goals and 169 targets covering a broad range of issues inclusive of poverty, health, education, hunger, women and girls, city sustainability, climate change and others. Experts estimate that it will take approximately $2 trillion a year—through the expiration date of 2030—to finance the goals. That’s a total need of about $26 trillion. If we can find a way to fund the Goals, we have the potential to end global poverty and hunger, protect the planet from degradation, ensure human beings can enjoy fulfilling lives, and foster peaceful and inclusive societies.

This means we have a lot of work to do. For years, SDG organizers and activists have pushed the private sector to play a more robust role in developing and delivering on the framework. And many corporations have stepped up to the plate in the process, even aligning their own activity with the Goals.

Recent rhetoric around “urgency” and “need” and “responsibility” on the part of private actors has been deafening. For many of these organizations, focusing on the Goals is synonymous with understanding what their company’s future might look like. In a world of increasingly scarce resources, rapid automation, global climate shifts and growing power of a socially conscious customer-base, sitting on the sidelines may mean getting left behind. The imperative to pursue these global mandates can either be to mitigate risk or to truly appreciate the value of profit and purpose. Regardless, the zeal with which corporate leaders and institutions are reaching for the baton feels unprecedented.

Conversations during UNGA week were abuzz with one key question—how can the private sector approach the SDGs in a way that actually achieves our shared global objectives? In response to this, the Global Impact Investing Network, in partnership with The Abraaj Group and Bank of America Merrill Lynch, convened business leaders to discuss what they’ve been doing to meet this goal and what more will be needed.

Inspired by the enthusiasm of the participants—and the ambitious thinking of changemakers in the room, here were some things we heard:

First, we have to start talking about the SDGs as a framework, not a silver bullet.

It was inspiring to hear representatives from Safaricom, Royal Phillips, and LADOL broadly agree that the SDGs create a construct for real conversation. Specifically, the Goals offer an organized way of aligning business activities with delivering impact. The segmentation of goals—and even more importantly, their targets—help businesses understand which of their peers are tackling the same problems and encourage collaboration towards these ends. In our own Impact Investing work, specifically through the Impact Investing Network Map, we’ve seen firsthand that there’s real value in understanding who’s playing in your space. By identifying likely allies, organizations are motivated to work together to achieve better results.

Second, the private sector must be the nexus for change, not an afterthought.

Capital and investment have often powered the wheel of innovation, for better or worse. As our panelists pointed out, businesses are not just a key stakeholder in systems-wide change, but a key organizer. Particularly in emerging markets, they are required to work with local communities, align different sources of capital, and inspire local government to serve the immediate needs of their own supply chain. That’s a unique position to be in. Take healthcare, for example. To revolutionize the healthcare system in emerging markets, as was explained from the mainstage, the solution is not as simple as building one hospital. Businesses need to create relationships with pharmaceutical companies, train doctors and nurses and even improve local transport and infrastructure to facilitate effective treatment. As representatives of Abraaj’s Growth Markets Health Fund, Royal Phillips, PBUCC and the IFC made clear (through their partnership in the Growth Markets Health Fund), even the most catalytic investments or innovative solutions need everyone around the table.

Third, without refreshed norms on how the private sector operates, progress will be stunted.

Even with the best collaboration and innovation, how we measure success needs an update if the goal is to maximize impact alongside profit. And that requires a move from short term wins to long term sustainability. As Amy Jadesimi pointed out from the stage, we’ve allowed the industry to drift dangerously away from what “long term” used to mean in the 70s and 80s. Corporate trailblazers—like Paul Polman of Unilever—continue to urge businesses to rethink how they measure success and with what frequency. But many agree that to do this, we need to first educate those calling the shots, and that extends beyond the C-Suite. Shareholders need to be informed of the value of sustainable thinking and long-term planning. They need to be encouraged to use their voice and to exercise their votes in alignment with what they believe to be fundamental to the success of a company long-term. Financial managers need to be at the helm of product innovation, exploring new mechanisms that leverage both social and financial returns. Stakeholders—every entity or individual affected by a businesses’ core activity—must be engaged holistically. Even across private assets, there’s a role for Limited Partners to play with General Partners and fund managers to actively demand that they work with their portfolio companies to think beyond just the bottom line—for financial and social benefits.

Achieving the SDGs are more of a reality today than ever before. They are integral to the well-being of hundreds of millions of people around the world. Some corporations are ready to move to fulfill this mandate, while others are waiting to be inspired. If we can use the framework of the SDGs to usher in this new way of thinking, acting and partnering—with the private sector as an integral and active participant—we may truly have an opportunity to massively reduce global poverty.

Fearless Focus: Diane Melley

This post was written by Diane Melley on behalf of the Case Foundation:

In our journey to Be Fearless and champion a fearless approach to tackling social challenges, the Case Foundation team will spotlight leading changemakers across sectors that have embraced fearlessness. Our spotlights will provide personal accounts of why these changemakers adopted a fearless approach, how they overcame hurdles, and how taking risks, being bold, and failing forward led to quicker results and deeper impact.

This week, Diane Melley, Director of Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs at IBM, is our guest blogger for Fearless Focus. IBM has been a fearless company since its founding 100 years ago – in society and in the ways it has innovated. From providing equal pay for women in 1935, and then-President Thomas Watson taking a bold stand against segregation in the American South in 1956, to being one of the first American companies to include sexual orientation as part of its nondiscrimination policies in 1984, IBM has consistently set the bar for responsible business practices. IBM has also led in product and service innovation. It holds more patents than any other American company, and many of its inventions and ideas have changed the world: electronic tabulating machines, bar codes, e-business and cloud computing, and of course Watson, the computer that won at Jeopardy. IBM is again leading by example through its pro bono programs, which have provided more than $250 million worth of skills-based services from its employees to nonprofits all over the world.

First, I want to congratulate the Case Foundation on 15 years of innovation and bold action. The organization has provided extraordinary leadership while tackling some of the thorniest issues in the US and around the globe. Whether experimenting with new models and partnerships to create sustainable solutions, or leveraging technology to empower social entrepreneurs, Case has provided a true example of acting fearlessly.

To me, being fearless in approaching social challenges means being willing to step out of the safety of the crowd and go into uncharted territory. Attempting new approaches often means being willing to stand alone, at least initially. And while we at IBM are not afraid of being outside of the pack, our accomplishments – certainly those on the Corporate Citizenship front – are largely in part thanks to the partnership of both the public and private sector. Many of our programs, such as Supplier Connection and P-TECH, would not be possible without the support of our outstanding partners.

Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs at IBM has acted fearlessly over the past several decades, being willing to completely transform itself as an organization.  Historically, the IBM Foundation looked to donate cash to local causes. During the past 10 years, under the aggressive leadership of our Vice President Stan Litow, we have undertaken a substantial shift, broadening our portfolio to align more closely with the strategy of IBM. For example, when our Smarter Cities strategy was announced, we fused the idea of IBM’s business strategy to our citizenship strategy. We looked at how we could assist cities and municipalities from a social perspective. While we will always be interested in education and workforce development, especially as it pertains to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curriculum, we are now much more willing to look across IBM for opportunities where we can leverage the expertise of our parent organization and our best asset – IBMers – in service to the communities where we live.

During our transformational journey, we learned many lessons: the importance of being strategic, thinking and planning for the long term, and engaging strong partners. To the first point, it is not enough to be reactionary – the best improvements are those that are thoughtful and deliberate. Second, whatever is created should not just be for the moment, but should be architected in a sustainable manner. Finally, in the social sector, partners are essential – so many of the issues we are trying to resolve are complex and multi-stakeholder – therefore we need to engage cross-sector in order to create and affect true change.

At IBM, we take risks because it is part of our heritage. Our founders and our culture encourage being visionary and at the forefront of what is possible, whether it was hiring our first black employee in 1899, a mere 34 years after the end of the Civil War, hiring our first female employee 20 years before women won the right to vote in the US, or in building Watson, the breakthough natural language Deep Q&A system in 2011. Our inspiration comes from our roots, and our hope is that each IBMer is inspired to act fearlessly and to take risks every day.

Learn more about IBM’s corporate responsibility programs here. Read more about our Be Fearless campaign. Know someone that we should spotlight for Fearless Focus? Let us know here in the comments or tell us on twitter @casefoundation using #befearless.