No. This is not a political statement. Instead, it is a story about a billionaire who has established a corporate vision for our generation that could single handedly save us from ourselves. I am not speaking about Michael Bloomberg, although some may argue that this description fits him too.
Laurence Douglas Fink was born in 1952 in California, a son of an English professor and shoe store proprietor. A successful business student and eventual MBA, Fink started in the bond business in the 1970s when bond business was just starting to hit its stride. Laurence (or Larry for short) weaved in and out of the financial markets until the late 1980s when he founded BlackRock, an asset management firm that has since grown to be the world’s biggest, with $6.5 TRILLION under its auspices. One may think that Larry Fink, the billionaire who he is, and with the success he’s achieved, would be pleased amassing wealth and prestige, not thinking about much else. Perhaps in the older days of his asset management career that was the case. Nowadays Larry is most known for setting the high bar for corporate executives to lead with purpose and intent, and to make the world a better place.
Every year Larry sends out a letter to the companies in which BlackRock invests as part of the company’s Corporate Governance program. In 2017, Fink recalibrated on his 2016 letter where he suggested companies needed to start thinking longer term for greater value to shareholders, by suggesting that going forward, BlackRock will make determinants on investments based on the key ingredients that support long-term value, which include environmental, social and governance functions. Sustainability was mentioned several times in the 2017 letter as a key determinant of how companies are looking at growth. That growth isn’t just about shareholder returns and short-term gains, but about how a company can invest in global improvements.
By 2018, Fink’s letter took on a more urgent tone, requesting that recipients of investment dollars think strongly about the way the public is depending on companies to make a positive contribution to society given the pressing issues of our time. Fink says “without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential. It will ultimately lose license to operate from key stakeholders.” Fink’s letter goes on to question the role companies indeed play in society, and whether companies want to be known for being stewards of the environment and communities in which they operate.
When we live in a time when politics, business, philanthropy and technology seem to swarm with billionaires, and when society begins to doubt the audacity of said billionaires to give back in a way that is impactful and can effect change, it’s hard to give credence to these moves by Fink to inspire companies to do the right thing. That said, the waves Fink made by writing his imploring letters, and subsequently the changes we’ve seen in big companies wanting to play a bigger hand in the space of sustainability, are monumental. Whether you take these actions at face value, or like some, see them as a pure money making ploy, that’s your choice. My perspective is that leading companies are figuring out how to represent their business interest in a way that has positive humanistic and societal implications. Stakeholders and shareholders are responding well, and that will only continue as investors, partners, governments and ultimately consumers support those companies doing the right thing, without question and without hesitation.
Do you ever think about how to improve the challenges our world faces when we can control so little outside of our own actions? Have you considered how the efforts you put into making a change jive (or not) with those of others? Whether you are a business owner, nonprofit executive, leader at a large company, entrepreneur or any individual trying to make a positive impact, it seems near impossible sometimes that we will be able to make a dent in our greatest challenges if we don’t do so by working together.
I’ve spent my career trying to solve problems that seem near insolvable. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a stalwart champion for effective collaboration to address these challenges given their complexity and scope. Ensuring every person on this planet has access to basic necessities, for example, like water, food, shelter and education may seem like a moonshot project, but it doesn’t have to be. Effective collaboration can truly make a difference.
It may be easy for someone like me to talk incessantly about partnership for problem solving, though, when that’s what I do every day. For others not used to working with partners to find solutions to challenges big or small, collaboration may not come naturally. I’m often asked how organizations can begin finding the right partners to work with if collaboration is a need or of interest. It’s a really important question actually. To put it simply, I often look at partnership through the lens of comparative advantage.
What is comparative advantage? Comparative advantage is a way of measuring degree of skill and strengths. For example, if one nonprofit is skilled at fundraising, and another nonprofit is able to do fundraising well, but isn’t as skilled as the first nonprofit, than the first nonprofit has the comparative advantage. This means that as the two nonprofits enter into partnership, the first nonprofit should really be the one managing fundraising, and the second should be working on a skillset where they have the comparative advantage (maybe M&E).
Comparative advantage helps you think about the types of skills that you bring to a partnership, versus where skills are needed to advance a certain mutual goal or deliverable.
Through comparative advantage, collaboration can be more structured, and thus roles, responsibilities and deliverables are easy to agree to. This makes goal delivery more effective and efficient, and helps us get out of our silos as well.
If this notion of partnership with a focus on comparative advantage, is interesting to you and yet you still are quite sure where to begin, start by thinking about what skills you bring to a partnership and what skills you still need. Helping you think through some of this is what we spend a lot of time doing at Connective Impact. We’ve also created an online set of tools to help too. Once you get started focusing on collaboration, whether using comparative advantage of your own set of tools, hopefully you will land on a solid approach to find your own set of moonshot goals to address and overcome.
In December, 2017 my company, Connective Impact, became a B Corporation. Are you familiar with B Corps? Maybe you’ve seen the big, bold B label indicating a company has been certified as a B Corp? Perhaps you’ve heard B Corp Patagonia’s CEO Rose Marcario share why being a socially and environmentally minded company is so important both to the consciousness and bottom line of Patagonia. You may have even seen the B Corp logo when eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. B Corporations are certified companies balancing purpose and profit. They are companies as big as Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation, Kickstarter, or Eileen Fisher, or as small as Connective Impact, using business as a force for good. Does it matter whether businesses care about purpose? Do conscious missions drive profits? Can businesses shape a new paradigm to advance opportunities that heal us or advance us?
You can read my take in my new book Purposeful Profits: Inside Successful Businesses Making a Positive Global Impact, out May 22nd.
You can also see mention of the role purpose and mission play in corporate decisions the world over if you pay any attention to how companies are evolving in the new generation of millennial leaders. What a company says, does, invests in, produces and how it advocates (or not) for certain issues matters. The B Corp movement is deeply involved in advancing the message that business can and should be a force for good, politically, socially, environmentally and economically.
As a B Corp, and a woman-owned business, Connective Impact is also part of a unique group of companies run by B Corp Female CEOs (18% to be exact). As one of these unique creatures, I was invited this past week to attend a convening at Eileen Fisher’s Learning Lab in upstate New York with 100 other B Corp Female CEOs to discuss how we, as women leaders, can effect the greatest change with our businesses, within our communities and our partners. Over the course of 1.5 days we worked within working groups, in small listening sessions, brainstorming about inspiration and challenges, fears and opportunities. We addressed ways to engage on political issues like climate change and gender equity, we discussed ways to shift capital so women-owned businesses (and especially diverse-women-led businesses) can get better access to funding, we talked circular economy, peer-to-peer networking and business development. We had delicious food and even more delicious dialogue.
To kick off the day we heard from Eileen Fisher herself, a pioneer in the mission-driven business space, as well as Nancy Green, CEO of Athleta and Mary Powell, CEO of Green Mountain Power. These women leaders shared unabashedly their own inspirations, sense of fears, struggle with balance and feelings of opportunity for the future. Capping off their presentation was the signing of the We the Change Manifesto (see below), which we all signed in support of a paradigm shift led by women-owned businesses.
The day was about focus, intention, authenticity, honesty and shifting power. It was about Purposeful Profits, women support, collaboration at its finest, and a commitment to make a change for future generations that is built on respecting our planet and each other. There’s nothing more pertinent in the notion of being a B Corp that that.
If you aren’t yet familiar with the B Corp movement, visit BCorporation.net. To learn more about the B Corp Women CEOs working groups, contact me anytime.
Joanne Sonenshine is Founder + CEO of Connective Impact, a partnership strategy advisory firm helping mission-driven companies advance social, environmental and economic impact through collaboration, and author of ChangeSeekers: Finding Your Path to Impact and Purposeful Profits: Inside Successful Businesses Making a Positive Global Impact.
We were asked to compile a list of the best ways to find new partners for mission-driven businesses looking to increase their impact, while staying focused on their business. Rather than keep those creative ideas close to the vest, we wanted to share with our readers. We hope you find one (or more of these ideas) useful!
If Connective Impact can be helpful as you seek new and diversified partners (for funding or project development) reach out to us! Our new course, Partnerships, Purpose and Profit is also available to help you develop your partnership strategy and advance your mission.
In 2014 when I launched the company it was because I knew mission-driven companies and organizations needed more direction for finding the best partners to amplify their impact, particularly in supply chains and in rural communities where companies are often dependent upon inputs, ingredients for products and raw materials. Back then I developed the methodology that we still use, focused on prioritizing goals in the first place, developing strong partner relationships and being clear on roles and responsibilities.
Inevitably companies, nonprofits and even governments can’t address every challenge or impediment alone. By relying on partnerships, any mission-driven company can succeed and advance impact with the focus that we all so critically need.
So what have we learned in the last 5+ years on partnerships, and why are we going back to basics?
1. We want to keep our focus on the importance of partnerships in delivering impact. Any combination of actors can and should work together if the outcome leads to greater results than what an actor can do on its own. What is needed for effective collaboration is a process for stakeholder engagement and strategy development that is based on (1) preparedness, (2) critical listening, (3) role identification and (4) quality measurement. To get started, an organization must prioritize its goals and understand the space in which its goals are achievable. We call this “priority setting” (nothing revolutionary here folks).
2. I would argue that almost always, true aspirational social impact goals MUST involve others. Alignment may not be perfect but if missions do not overlap, there is a large risk of imbalance and ultimately failure.
3. Listening to each other and ensuring a level of honesty and direct communication is paramount for effective partnership building. Organizations need to understand the other players and their roles. Who are potential collaborators? What groups are already out there? Where is the best place to start the effort?
4. Niche identification and role assignment ensures a level of clarity and efficiency in the collaboration. Not every actor has the same strengths, and tasks must be distributed to ensure the appropriate use of resources and for effective delivery of outcomes.
5. No partnership, project or collaborative program is effective without the right measurement of progress, impact and adaptive management.
Consistent throughout is the right preparation and consistent communication. That and a central organization or leader to guide the collaborative group down the path of strategy development. That's why Connective Impact is still playing an important role in this space! Want to try our methodology? Contact us here.
In response to many requests from orgs interested in dabbling in our methodology, we’ve also developed an online platform to take you through our partnership strategy process through in your own time and at your own pace. You can access it here.