Building back better is not enough. Is collaboration the answer?


Hanna Stähle


At this year’s C Summit, a Europe-wide congress for corporate foundations, social investors, advisors and philanthropy networks, we challenged ourselves to think tomorrow today and how we can find solutions to address deep-seated fragilities and inequalities in our economies and societies and pave the way to more systemic approaches to current and future challenges.

Building back better has emerged as a common framework for responding to the crisis, fostering innovation and investment to deal with future crises. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has revealed the systemic failure of institutions to provide equity and justice. We were not prepared to deal with the pandemic in a coordinated manner, neither in the first wave, nor in the second.

Ethnic minorities, people of colour, women, people with disabilities and most vulnerable groups of our societies were disproportionately hit by the crisis and its immediate and medium-term effects, while the long-term impact of this pandemic is still largely unknown. As Rosa Gallego, Director International Relations at the Spanish Association of Foundations, warned us: ‘One of the lessons from the 2008 crisis is that it always hits later’. Future challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss will only exacerbate the existing cracks and inequalities in our system.

Already in 2016, the world’s richest 1 per cent possessed 99 per cent of the global wealth according to Oxfam report. Intergenerational transmission of wealth in the years to come will only strengthen this dynamic, leaving opportunity out of reach for the vast majority of the population. Economic growth is not the only way to measure economic development. Access to education and health care system, social stability and security are equally important to societal wellbeing.

In order to align economic growth with social justice, we need to shift mindsets of how economic development is measured and accessed. Ahead of the C Summit, Roberta Bosurgi, the CEO of EVPA shared her thoughts on this: ‘Coming from a century where GDP was the only measurement for assessing economic progress and development, we need to move to a more articulate understanding of success, where inclusion, equity and impact on people and our planet are equally important.’

Corporate philanthropy and social business, linked to both the non-profit and for-profit world, could be a true leverage to transform companies and enable an ecosystem of change. Kirsten Ottens, Director of the ING Foundation in the Netherlands, shared how cross-sector collaboration can help get to the root causes of social problems. Debt Relief Route (‘Schuld Hulp Route’), a project implemented jointly by the ING Foundation, ING bank, local authorities and a number of volunteers, provides help and financial assistance to people who find themselves in a debt trap which they cannot solve themselves. Ottens underlined that, while providing immediate support and guidance is the focus now, the initiative intends to gather relevant data to be able to provide help at an earlier stage in the future and potentially prevent people from getting into financial difficulties. This demonstrates how important it is to foster cross-sector collaboration and to go beyond single solution investments.

Social impact is at the core of Renault Mobilize programme. François Rouvier, Director Social Business at Renault, described how this crisis forced the company to foster innovation and think of mobility in more inclusive terms. Renault Mobilize, initially launched in 2011 as a ‘social business experimentation’ at Renault to ‘transform, innovate and motivate’, has become one of the four pillars of the company’s core business under the leadership of the new CEO of Renault Group, Luca de Meo, and is dedicated to new mobilities. Rouvier emphasised that social and business were not incompatible as ‘vinegar and oil’ but could ‘merge into something new’, with social business as a driver of innovation and collaboration within the company.

Building back better forces us to start from the status quo and think in past, not future terms. A widely held conviction at the C Summit was that ‘our global economic system is broken, and we all need to come together to reset, not just build back better,’ as CEO of the Laudes Foundation, Leslie Johnston, emphasised. ‘In the end nothing really changed after 2008. Let’s not do it again that way – let’s be serious about the change we all want’, said Vincent Faber, Executive Director of the Trafigura Foundation.

Business leaders are ready to ‘do the right thing’ but often do not know how. Radical collaboration with unlikely allies is the answer, as Halla Tómasdóttir, CEO of the B Team, underlined in the closing ceremony of the C Summit. This would need a change of mindsets and trial and error approach, as there is no magic formula for successful collaboration. One thing is clear, if we want our societies to be just and inclusive and make sure that we live in a hospitable environment and are better prepared for future crises, we need to act now and we need to act together.

Thinking tomorrow today defined not only what was discussed at the C Summit but also the very format of the conference. While everything was in place for a hybrid format by the end of September, the second wave of the pandemic that brought a tsunami of new infections in Europe, however, forced us to start from scratch and entirely redesign the format and programme of the congress. Even when you have a plan, you have to be prepared to embrace the reality we live in, collaborate and adapt. That’s what the pandemic is teaching us.

Hanna Staehle is Senior Manager, Strategic Partnerships and Communications at Dafne

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