Hi everyone. This looks like a really interesting discussion, sorry I wasn’t able to join yesterday. I’m an academic at Ashridge, part of Hult International Business School, and we’ve worked with Business Fights Poverty on various challenges in the past.
I wanted to add a comment regarding the question: what needs to be done to enable more advocacy collaboration to happen? I’ve been leading a research project on understanding the motivations for corporate advocacy for more ambitious government action on various aspects of sustainable development, and the project has included looking at advocacy collaboration between business and civil society organisations. Where this kind of advocacy has been happening, what’s the story about why has it been happening, and what does that tell us about how to encourage more?
A lot of the themes already mentioned in the dialogue have come up in our research, like where there is alignment with business interests, where there has been a long standing partnership with different civil society organisations that has matured to the point that joint advocacy is realistic, and the importance of senior leadership support.
The business case is always the starting point, but from what we saw, it’s not the whole story. It’s hard for organisations to justify advocacy activities if they can’t see a business case, and organisations do tend to spend more hard cash on advocacy activities the clearer the business case is.
But having said that, some organisations seem to notice a business case while others don’t – this has more to do with factors like organisational culture and the specific worldviews of individuals in senior leadership positions.
The longer history an organisation has of engaging in corporate sustainability activities generally, and specific networks like the UN Global Compact and the WBCSD, and the longer and more mature it’s civil society partnerships, the more likely it is to be open to the idea of joint advocacy for public policy action, and think that’s reasonable rather than crazy. Experiences in the past of scandals and getting things wrong on corporate sustainability can also influence why one company might engage and see a business case while another might not.
And the particular orientations of individuals in key senior leadership positions does make a disproportionate difference. Advocacy and government relations is an area that a CEO can have a greater degree of discretion over than some other aspects of the business – a favourable CEO can enable a lot of advocacy action, whereas a CEO that doesn’t get it can really limit what’s possible.
Here we heard a lot about the importance of the specific life experiences that different senior leaders had had – periods of their career spent in developing countries and first hand exposure to various sustainability challenges, personal involvement in dialogue with critical stakeholders, receiving a personal challenge from a significant individual like the UN Secretary General or a campaigner or politician of world renown, or from another CEO in another business, formative experiences from earlier in life such as the values of significant family members, youth organisations, or university teachers. All these kinds of factors seemed to influence whether a senior leader was up for backing advocacy activities for more ambitious government action or not, and influence whether or not they could perceive and grasp a business case for doing so.
Lots of advice about how to engage businesses in corporate sustainability activities in general and advocacy activities in particular focuses on the business case, but what we heard suggests that it’s also valuable to think about how to leverage these wider factors about history of the organisation’s engagement in networks and partnerships, and how to recognise and look for the triggers that might connect with wider CEO personal histories and interests.