In order to transform our world and achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we must look beyond the ‘way we do things’ in our own industries, learn to be adaptive and work in multi-sector teams.
In early 2006, I walked into a room where the global CEO of Unilever, Barclays Bank, Porsche and other top business executives were sitting around a table. I looked around and thought to myself ‘What on earth am I doing here?’ What could a medical practitioner running a health development charity in Africa possibly have in common with these businessmen and women?’ I nearly went back home!
That was my first day at INSEAD. The learning curve was steep and exciting, but exactly what I needed at that time of my personal and professional development. I was amazed to discover that both private sector and the non-profit world faced similar challenges that could be resolved using the same strategies, with minimal adaptation. I learnt that each focussed on results, even if measured in different ways and struggle to find answers to similar questions – ‘How can we achieve our goals SMARTly? How can we measure our success and link it to both financing and outcomes? How can we improve systems to achieve quality and equity?’
Lessons from business
The main difference is in way that we measure and communicate these outcomes and to whom we are held to account. While Boards and shareholders tightly hold business to account based on return on investments (ROI) or return on equity (ROE), the non-profit sector is held to account by poorly measured moral persuasion, a social contract with society to ensure that the wealth of all is protected for the benefit of all. This is much more difficult to quantify, attribute to interventions in one specific sector or one group or to directly link back to financing as returns on investment.
Like Unilever’s production line for manufacturing Dove shampoo or Viennetta ice cream, organisations like mine, CHESTRAD International, contribute to, or ‘produce’ health. I therefore began to conceptualize our processes as similar to a factory’s production line, requiring similar strategies and capable of being accountably measured and communicated to our ‘shareholders’ – citizens and society who must hold non-profits to account. I learnt that in order to be effective and achieve our desired outcome of healthy lives, we needed to shift our thinking from funding to financing and key performance indicators (KPIs); from just goals and targets based on advocacy driven by moral persuasion to more measureable indicators linked to financing and performance.
I returned from INSEAD and totally transformed the structure and processes of CHESTRAD, linking every project not only to achievement of programme targets but also to financing as well as long term sustainability. Increasingly, our resource mobilization efforts shifted from one that relied purely on funding to one that focuses on financing and improved financial management, linked to results and impact, improved accountability and better communication with stakeholders. I understood that ‘making the investment case’ for health and social development will remain challenging unless we deploy innovations in financing, measurement and accountability in global health and development.
This diversity in investments, and the need to move from attributable to contribution to a shared vision is reflected in the UN outcome document to declare the 17 goals and targets of the SDGs. Over time, the health sector has become smarter, and our way of work has changed, promoting lives saved as a key performance indicator and ultimately setting our overall ambition to improve wellbeing and maximize life expectancy, working with other sectors to secure our world. That is the shared vision presented by world leaders in the SDGs.
Lessons from civil society
Equally, NGOs and civil society have taught businesses a lot about community engagement. Across Africa, many businesses have been guilty of approaching communities as a financial entity or as a tokenistic CSR initiative rather than real engagement. However, social responsibility programmes can create real shared value for both communities and businesses if done in the right way – not by focussing exclusively on financing. We have helped many companies to transfer their CSR portfolio into a shared value portfolio by expanding the total pool of economic and social value instead of simply redistributing profits. This was achieved by developing strategies that truly engage, respect and enable the communities they work in.
When it comes to doing business in today’s world, especially within the framework of the SDGs, businesses can also learn from the moral imperatives of the health sector. For as long as healthcare has existed, return on equity has not just been about profit. My colleagues and I are accustomed to looking at success more holistically, without the financial blinkers of the business world. I think it’s important not only to offer business school training to physicians and health managers as part of their ongoing professional development, but also for business people to learn valuable lessons from doctors.
Applying these lessons to the SDGs
In order to achieve the 17 SDGs by 2030, the private sector needs to redesign and restructure the way they do things. Companies are already recognising and respecting the transformational shifts that are occurring. It is not going to be business as usual. In the mosaic architecture to implement the SDGs, businesses also have a lot to learn from the non-profit world. The demand to share the world’s resources will shift the focus away from delivery of ROI and ROE measured only in financial terms. At the same time, shareholder value has changed to also require social accountability from the private sector. As financing streams become plural, private sector also begins to shift from tokenistic investments in corporate social responsibility to shared value – giving back to more discerning shareholders and regulatory agencies’ both economic and social return. This is the driving impetus behind I Will Give Africa, an innovative platform established by CHESTRAD International in collaboration with the private sector and other stakeholders, to innovatively expand domestic resources to finance economic and social development in Africa.
Business approach to financing and engagement is changing. It is moving from “us and them” to “we” to create a mosaic model of collaboration. This can already be seen in blended financing and program partnerships between private sector, public sector and civil society. As we shift from aid to trade, and from CSR to shared value, sectors and stakeholders must learn from one another, blurring traditional boundaries to create a new normal where business models, moral imperatives and local capacity combine to achieve our ambitious global goals for 2030.