The problems of the world are too big to be solved by traditional philanthropy. Writing cheques alone can’t end poverty, solve climate change, reduce inequality or surmount barriers to exclusion.
That’s not to say private sector companies and foundations shouldn’t try to make a dent in these problems by sharing wealth. But if we are to make a meaningful difference to the great challenges of our times, we have to put our hearts, minds and talents where our money is. We have to commit to a strategy of doing good by doing what we do best.
We know that inclusive and sustainable growth is imperative for the health of our planet and for the continued success of our enterprises. We know that business cannot succeed in a failing world. When companies look at the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, many see 17 objectives against which to measure their progress. They know that their shareholders, employees, customers and the public want them to stand for something, to have a point of view and to lead with their values.
Understanding our place in the world and our ability to be forces for good, many private sector leaders have adopted a model of corporate sustainability built around environmental, social and governance approaches to creating positive impact. We are reducing carbon footprints, building diverse and inclusive workplaces and putting in place ethical and responsible standards across our firms.
But we can and must do more. We need to take the creative sparks behind our most innovative products and solutions and put them to work for the greater good.
Here are three ways for the private sector to catalyze social impact:
1. Lead with our strengths
Figure out what we’re good at, then leverage the core assets and competencies of our organizations to achieve positive outcomes.
2. Align sustainability with strategic growth
Understand that sustainability may be about breaking even (or even taking a loss) in the short term. But if done correctly, it can be profitable in the long term. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
3. Collaborate across sectors
Big problems require big solutions, and that takes collaboration. We’ve got to get out of the silos of 'my sector' and 'your sector' in order to get to things done.
What does this look like?
First, when it comes to philanthropy, we need to be as generous with our talent and technology as we are with our treasure. Look at your workforce and think about the expertise that every member of the team brings to his or her job. How can those same skills be put to work for social good?
Can your marketing team help a local non-profit organization create compelling collaterals for potential donors? Can your data scientists work with social sector partners to build their data capacity, unlocking the power of their own data sets to improve decision-making? Beyond employees, what products and tools does your company have or make, and how could those assets be put to use in order to advance philanthropic goals?
Second, the best causes are those that align with your core business strategy, creating a pathway to be both purpose-driven and sustainable. If a philanthropic effort is an executive’s pet project, there may be a lot of passion behind it. But there will also be uncertainty. What happens when that executive leaves? Will the recipient of your generosity suddenly have to look elsewhere?
Mastercard’s guiding vision is “A World Beyond Cash”. It is the road map for our business, promoting growth precisely because it addresses society’s needs. A world beyond cash is a safer world, and one with more inclusion and less corruption. It is a world where everyone can contribute to the global digital economy and where the benefits of that economy are broadly shared. That’s a healthy economy, in which everyone has the opportunity to thrive.
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This vision informs both our business strategy around financial inclusion and our social impact strategy around inclusive growth. By promoting the digitization of societies, we can bring more people into the formal economy, alleviate poverty, reduce income inequality and be a more profitable company in the long run. That last point is both important and necessary. Once you align your business strategy with your social impact focus, do not apologize for the fact that each benefits from and shapes the other. That’s exactly how it should work.
Finally, remember these rules of thumb: if you want to go wide, go with government. If you want to go deep, go with NGOs and academic institutions. If you want to go fast, go with the private sector. And if you want to go far, you must go together. It is telling that the 17th and final SDG is “partnerships for the goals”. When we understand not only our own assets and competencies, but also those of our allies and potential collaborators, we can dramatically enhance and scale social impact in ways that are greater than what any of us could achieve on our own.
Collaboration is not easy, and it comes with pitfalls. Partners are quick to spot shortcomings where ambition and business processes do not align. So this step becomes a valuable acid test for whether you embody the change you want to see. If partners are asking difficult questions and you find you do not have the answers, it’s time to revisit the changes you have implemented and consider how they can be improved or where the bottlenecks may lie.
Sustainability is an ongoing journey. Each of us needs always to be exploring what we can do to deliver long-term change for the sake of human progress and global security. We should aim to learn continuously from our experiences and from our partners about how we can push assumptions and tear down barriers to deliver results beyond what any of us think is possible or probable. We must always work on forging and maintaining trusted connections with those who can drive impact.
At Mastercard, that is what we do as a network. We create ecosystems and infrastructure that lay the groundwork for long-term inclusive growth. In turn, this drives strong relationships, strong financial results and strong delivery of our commitment to our shareholders, as well as the world around us.
My final, parting piece of advice is to listen to and engage your employees. They are the ambassadors who will challenge the status quo. Give them a real and meaningful voice in your business, and they will give you the platform to effect real change. If you listen, but do not act, they will look elsewhere. But, if you embrace their energy and commit to being a force for good in the world, you will attract and retain better talent, and thrive in the ever more complex and global business landscape.