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October 03, 2011
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Home » Tear Down That Wall: Building Bridges Between the Public, Private, & NGO Sectors

The other night I went to a lovely dinner party in Old Town Alexandria outside Washington, DC.  This town tends to attract very passionate, dedicated people who deeply care about the work they do.

That's why I was surprised, when we went around introducing ourselves, that one of the guests talked-down her contribution to the world. Referring to one of the other guests, she said, "I wish we could all do work as meaningful as yours. I just deliver broadband." The other guest does do something meaningful, working for a non-profit that helps impoverished children in the developing world.  How do I know she does meaningful work? I looked it up...on the Internet...using my broadband connection.
A few weeks ago when I spoke at the Better Business Bureau's Forum on Corporate Responsibility we heard the chairman of Nestle say he didn't need to "give back" to society because he didn't steal anything. A young man in the audience seemed incensed that anyone could deny the inherent thievery of all corporations.
A myth colors our view of business: that a big wall separates business and society. On one side of that wall are corporations, selfishness, and profits. On the other side are NGOs, governments, social services, and self-sacrifice.
Let's dispel this myth. Companies provide social goods and are part of the fabric of society.  By definition, anything of value produced by a business fulfills a societal need.  We can argue about the relative value of say, organic eggs vs. video games, but food and entertainment have social value.  Society grants a license to operate to those businesses we deem valuable and denies it to those we deem destructive.
Tearing down this artificial wall benefits both business and society as well as NGOs and governments.  When businesses truly see themselves as part of the fabric of society they will behave like it, taking into account the full scope of their positive and negative impacts.  When society sees businesses playing valuable and necessary roles, it is less likely to treat them like thieving parasites. Into that new reality, governments and NGOs can breathe a new possibility where they can strike the kinds of partnerships they need to take on society's toughest challenges.
This artificial wall has kept companies, NGOs, and governments too siloed, operating in their own limited vacuums.  Tearing down this wall creates a new possibility for cooperation and results. 
Think it’s impossible for them to collaborate? Think again. At the upcoming COMMIT!Forum, dozens of companies, NGOs, governments, and communities will showcase how they’ve partnered to take on the most intractable challenges, from food security to promoting democracy.   And these aren’t the old “checkbook philanthropy” of yesteryear. Modeling Nestle Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe’s comments, these case studies highlight how companies create shared value for their investors, customers, and communities.
That same modest dinner guest went on to tell us that she came from humble roots.  Her dad, a milkman, imbued her with a strong work ethic.  She felt that was his biggest contribution to society. And I'm sure it was one of his best, but not his only. Sir Winston Churchill once said, "There is no finer investment any community can make than pouring milk into babies."
How do I know?   I looked it up...on the Internet...using my broadband connection.
Agree with me? Disagree with me? Debate with me at the COMMIT!Forum in New York City on September 26-27. Register today and save 30% by using ID Code 30OFF.
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