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Why Funding the Private Sector Makes Sense

It was a blustery day in DC as I ran to meet a friend for coffee. My friend is a program director at an international funding agency in town. As I sipped my coffee and waited, I revised my notes. A client of mine at the time, a multi-billion dollar consumer goods company, was looking for funding to build out a pretty substantial social impact program in several countries, on the heels of an injection of funding from a well known family foundation.
 
My task during this meeting was to secure an interest on the part of my friend’s agency to co-fund this project. When my friend rushed into the coffee shop, he sat down and mentioned he had limited time. What was my ask? I shared with him the situation - that this well known client of mine was testing a new social impact program, had received some substantial initial funding, but was keen to bring other partners on board, and in particular, wanted my friend’s agency to be a core funder in the replication and scale of the program. 

My friend looked at me like I had told him a three-headed alien had landed in my driveway. 

Why do they need us he asked?

It’s a fair question. Why would a multi-billion dollar company need more funding to advance a social impact project?

Here’s what I shared with him:
  1. Corporate investment in social sustainability or environmental projects is still a tiny fraction of other types of program investments. Why is that? As we progress from companies investing in social or environmental programs simply to save face or get ahead of regulation, to realizing the business benefit of doing so, there is still a cultural shift that must take place inside large businesses. Huge percentages of business budgets still go to marketing, operations, logistics and overhead just to ensure products and services reach consumers. The splice of funding that goes toward corporate social responsibility programs is relatively small. That doesn’t mean the splice isn’t growing. It absolutely is. In 2018 corporations spent $20 billion on corporate social responsibility. That’s a fraction of the hundreds of billions spent on marketing each year, however. But given the fact that we still need $2 to $3 trillion to address all 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals in the next 10 years, and we need for businesses to be a big part of the market development necessary to do so, corporate funding will simply not enough. It’s an important start, but it’s just not enough.
  2. There is growing recognition that corporate investment towards solutions that help bring jobs, resources and economic mobility to areas with environmental or social challenges is necessary if we are going to address the 17 SDGs. That said, corporations cannot operate in certain environments under current conditions without proper safety, disaster response, water, sanitation and health infrastructure, education, and other critical investments. While some companies do support programs that help with these issues, to truly shore up the right foundation for social and environmental programs to succeed, governments must be providing funding for programs that do the same. This allows for risk abatement on the part of corporations as well. Thus government funding matches toward corporate investment have become a critical piece of economic development.
  3. Even for some of the most sophisticated companies, with complex global supply chains, the issues that corporations face working in the farthest reaches of our planet have become more challenging, nuanced and dynamic as issues like climate change, coronavirus, human rights and gender equity (not to mention access to basic necessities and income equality) plague global dialogue. It’s naive to think that companies, no matter how deep in ranks or technically savvy, could address any of these issues alone. Thus collaboration with other actors that have a technical ability to address these perplexing challenges is critical. These collaborations require outside funding. There simply isn’t enough funding currently inside a business’s coffers to pay outright. Should companies siphon off a small percentage of their marketing budgets to augment the money going into these programs? YES! Are they currently? Yes. To an extent. In the meantime, though, with outside funding there will be an opportunity to show the value in building more collaborative, technically-based replicable programs.
  4. Often a corporation wants to test a new social or environmental program in a geography where their track record is limited or nil. Collaborating with funders, particularly public funders or private investors that know the region better, allows for a bit of risk tolerance and can help ensure programs or projects get off the ground with the right footing locally. This is particularly important when dealing with indigenous communities or geographies where corporate investment may be fraught with skepticism or challenges. Obviously companies must be strong stewards of social identify and the environment at all times.

Because of these reasons, and a recognition that working in concert with the private sector will allow funders to make their investments go farther, funders across the spectrum have been ramping up their private sector engagement strategies. Collaboration in international development is no longer just about implementation or designing projects. It has developed into a method for identifying and deploying systemic solutions that promote long-term sustainability and lasting impact for the people and communities who need the support most.

As for the coffee date with my friend at the funding agency, we weren’t able to come to terms during that initial coffee meeting. But after several meetings with our corporate client, we helped build out a strong partnership that will bring opportunities for sustainable impact for decades to come.

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