Breaking the silos

Pears Foundation embarked on a different and counter-intuitive endeavour several years ago.

Venturing out of the traditional charitable sector where most of our work takes place, we partnered with three UK business schools – London, Said and Cranfield – in a joint effort to explore issues of responsible business and inspire future leaders to make a positive difference in society.

What we didn’t fully appreciate at the time was how the global economic crisis and public distrust would sharpen these issues amidst increased pessimism and public distrust of business.

So our Pears Business Schools Partnership – comprised of each school developing, publishing and teaching case studies on the positive value businesses can contribute to society, as well as producing a rotating lecture series – has provided a timely opportunity for the business leadership of the future to tackle difficult questions and to directly engage with leading business figures.

In this context, Sir Andrew Witty, CEO of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, gave an extraordinary speech at the second Pears Business Schools Partnership lecture at Cranfield last week.

Abandoning the defensive posture which enshrouds much discussion of business, Witty, without either notes or a podium, stood up to set out a bold and ambitious vision for the future of business that was “in step with society” and where “good things will happen when you do good things”.

First and foremost, he emphasised the need for business to regain lost trust which he said had been eroded by the “de-humanisation” of business behaviour. That meant bringing your values into the workplace, not leaving them at the gate.

For a CEO in charge of 110,000 employees, as in Witty’s case, that means providing leadership and personal responsibility. Strategic thinking must be long-term, defined as 20-30 years, and not just focused on short term earnings.

As if to anticipate the audience’s scepticism, Witty emphasised that the substance of business must change not just the rhetoric. For GSK, that meant action on animal testing, AIDS vaccines and aggressive efforts to reduce the price of drugs and pool patents. And for GSK’s 110,000 employees it means that the support and engagement of employees becomes part of core business practice and a responsible business strategy – from match-funding schemes and volunteering opportunities to rising young executives spending time in Nairobi’s slums.

What are the implications for the charitable sector of this emphasis on the strong synergies between business and society? First, charitable organisations might seize the opportunity – the offer if you like – to move beyond seeking grants or sponsorship from traditional corporate responsibility budgets to strategic partnerships which relate to the intersection of core business practice and development. Second, a willingness to countenance cross sector partnerships and move beyond the silos could lead to the formation of new and socially beneficial partnerships.

Of course, none of this is without challenge, but a willingness to engage business may take the charitable sector in some interesting new directions.

Charles Keidan is director of Pears Foundation and co-author of Family Foundation Giving Trends