Healthy Communities, Healthy Companies: Engaging the Private Sector in Collective Impact

In the three short years since FSG’s John Kania and Mark Kramer published Collective Impact in Stanford Social Innovation Review, we’ve been floored at the concept’s growth. Perhaps most notably, the Collective Impact Forum, which was launched early last year in collaboration with the Aspen Institute, has already reached over 9,500 members.

But for all its early success, there’s been a conspicuous absence at the collective impact table. While nonprofit leaders, philanthropic foundations and even governments have rallied around the idea, most corporations have not been nearly as involved in driving the concept forward.

We think that can – and should – change. We believe that the private sector can play an integral role in helping to solve social problems, as we’ve seen time and time again as corporations implement shared value strategies. But to be even more specific, we believe that corporations can play an important role in catalyzing collective impact efforts to address systemic social challenges that are core to their business.

The health sector is one arena that is ripe for corporate involvement, given the rising burden of chronic disease and its associated costs. Take childhood obesity as one specific health challenge. We know that one institution, regardless of its sector, cannot take on an obesity epidemic on its own. The root causes of widespread obesity are simply too many, and the solutions too complex. As such, many of the solutions to the challenge will emerge as a result of community-specific and community-led collective impact initiatives. It takes a group of actors – such as government agencies focused on health outcomes, local organizations with deep knowledge of the community context, groups of medical professionals, and insurance companies – working in alignment, generating new ideas, and committing over the long term to begin to move the needle. We believe that those groups of actors should include private companies not only because those companies have important resources and expertise to bring to the table, but also because improved health outcomes are directly relevant to many companies’ business objectives.

We’ve already seen this in action. A great example of a company taking a leadership role in driving collective impact is Campbell Soup Company, with its Campbell Healthy Communities program in the city of Camden, New Jersey. The company, which is headquartered in Camden, launched a 10-year, $10 million initiative to halve childhood obesity in the city over the next decade. Recognizing that the complexity and magnitude of the problem were too big for the company to take on alone, Campbell has partnered with different organizations to tackle the different aspects of the problem – with schools, to ensure that children have opportunities for physical activity; with nonprofits, to address issues like playground access; with the local government, to outline nutrition guidelines for children who attend Head Start; and many others. (To learn more about Campbell Healthy Communities, have a look at this blog, written by the program’s director.)

As Campbell and other companies begin to take a more active role in collective impact, there is a fascinating conversation beginning to emerge among collective impact practitioners about how to specifically involve the business sector for the benefit of current and future initiatives.

Existing initiative actors – from nonprofits, to hospital systems, to government agencies – want to better understand how to engage corporate actors. Corporations can obviously provide some funding for initiatives, but their role can expand far beyond that. Corporations can play a substantial role in other areas, too, such as sharing human resources or lending their expertise in certain issue areas, as well as contributing to the overall strategic direction of an effort.

On the corporate side, many companies are wrestling with how to adjust their business model to engage more effectively at the community level. At the end of the day, corporations need to have a better understanding of where social issues overlap with business needs and to what extent they are able to drive impact. For some needs, a company may be able to address business and social outcomes through proprietary products and services. But for many other complex social challenges that may be related to business objectives – for example, community health problems caused by increased sedentary behavior – it will be difficult for a company to create impact alone. This is where we see the opportunity for companies to take the bold step of catalyzing cross-sector initiatives, driving social and business impact.

We’d love to hear from you! How do you think corporations can play a role in collective impact? Have you come across these same questions in your work? How have you answered them?

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