The Argument For Thinking Big

November 2, 2020

Having a bold vision to “change the world” can often be met with some eye rolling. Yet, as an organization committed to our mission of improving the long term economic well-being of the impoverished and disadvantaged—children, youth and adults—it is imperative that we set out a bold, seemingly “impossible to achieve” course. Why? Because we know that no single system or agency can do this alone. Changing long term outcomes demands big thinking about how to improve the environment in which the people we serve live. This requires systemic, fully integrated and sustained interventions by business, the nonprofit sector, education, government and health care, and it necessitates a healthy investment by philanthropy.

Systemic interventions are always more challenging and more time consuming—and entail a significant degree of tenacity and patience. They require alignment of not just vision but of incentives. According to Forbes, “when incentives aren’t properly aligned, the relative importance of an activity isn’t the same among those who are needed to make change happen. Incentives drive behavior, and behavior spawns culture.”

I recently came across an article in Harvard Business Review discussing effective tactics of fighting poverty and inequality around the world which I found compelling. Below is an excerpt from that article.

”Given the strong demand for companies to deliver economic and social value and the ample opportunities for improving the quality of life in distressed communities, why do businesses find it so difficult to implement scalable and profitable strategies for inclusive growth—growth that benefits all society’s stakeholders?

“The answer, our research suggests, is that companies’ projects are generally not ambitious enough. Instead of trying to fix local problems, corporations and other actors need to reimagine the regional ecosystems in which they participate if they are to bring poor farmers and unemployed urban youths into the mainstream economy….

“To understand why CSR and sustainability initiatives often fail to scale up successfully, we interviewed 30 chief sustainability officers (CSOs). Most saw the problems as relating to implementation; they cited poor integration with the company’s core businesses, the difficulty of engaging with the multiple actors in local communities, and the lack of relevant measurements to motivate and evaluate benefits for the company and the target populations.

“But as we looked more deeply, we came to believe that the main problem was not in the execution of shared value projects; it was in the limited scale of projects’ ambitions. CSOs were not thinking big enough.

“Poorly functioning supply chains and systemic talent gaps cannot be solved by any single company through targeted local solutions, such as building a new warehouse, establishing a regional headquarters, selecting a local distributor, or building a school or training center. A sustainable, scalable solution requires that the company help create a new ecosystem that replaces economically and socially inefficient supply chains with ones that are both more profitable and capable of bringing more people into the formal economy.

“We identified three principles for designing strategies that can create inclusive, sustainable, and profit-generating ecosystems: Companies should search for systemic, multisector opportunities; mobilize complementary partners; and obtain seed and scale-up financing.”

So, in our commitment to change the world and to fight for the economic well being of the impoverished and disadvantaged, it is imperative that we “think big” and do the hard work to engage the right mix of partners, pursue the right kind of opportunities with aligned vision and incentives.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.