It Takes Us All

Regardless of the sector in which we work, the values with which we were raised or the politics we espouse, we are all repelled by such horrors as the persistence of modern-day slavery, the relegation of a child to a life of poverty, the outbreak of disease epidemics that cut a deadly swath across whole societies and Katrina-like weather extremes that reveal gross, and oftentimes life-ending inequities and governance failures.

Solutions to these daunting problems and others can and will be found at the intersection of public, private and social sector work. These challenges are the result of broken, even malign systems that can be replaced by the soft infrastructure of effective governance. But no individual, entity or sector can do that alone. It takes us all.

The outbreak and rapid spread of Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia offer a tragic example of how endemic poverty magnifies the danger, exacerbates its effects, complicates the response and increases the suffering. Had health systems been stronger, the disease might have been contained, its victims treated and society protected. Absent that infrastructure of human resources, physical facilities, technology, data and societal trust, a tragedy can quickly unfold.

As I noted in my previous post, these types of crisis situations often illuminate each sector’s skills, pressures and requirements, often requiring a nuanced approach. For example, philanthropy’s flexibility and ability to act fast allows it to play a unique role in supporting individual communities through hard times. The private sector’s capacity to create and leverage innovative technologies and distribute goods and services can help rebuild cities. And finally, governments play a vital role by setting standards, establishing policies, mobilizing resources and coordinating action. It is during crises that cross-sector collaboration becomes an imperative.

But it is not only in episodic crisis situations that we must come together to act. It is also in our day-to-day responsibilities as businesses leaders, government officials and individual citizens because our actions affect an increasing number of people worldwide. For example, within the private sector, globalization has created opportunities to reach new customers in new markets and to source materials and even finished goods from all over the globe. But it also presents considerable challenges with regard to supply chain management. Before a product is purchased by consumers, it most likely has gone through an extensive sequence of producers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers that are often located in remote parts of the world. The increasing complexity of global operations requires new strategies and systems for ensuring the safety and wellbeing of each employee.

Addressing these issues is a priority for commercial actors. But others have an interest and a role to play. To combat modern-day slavery, policymakers have established norms and have enacted and enforced laws. NGOs have partnered with businesses, working behind the scenes to audit their supply chains, while at the same time serving as public advocates.

In examining the roles of business, philanthropy and government in meeting global challenges, it is important to acknowledge the unique pressures on and requirements of each sector. For example, governments have to assure the security of citizens while at the same time protecting their privacy; companies have to maximize shareholder value while respecting the natural environment and the needs of stakeholders; NGOs have to both mobilize their constituencies and engage in quiet, back-room bargaining. And philanthropy can play a choreographing and catalytic role connecting the dots among existing and potential players and ideas.

But regardless of one’s profession, authority or source of expertise, each individual can play a role. That role may be one of disruptor, decision maker or both.

These are just some of the issues that will be discussed during the 2015 Global Philanthropy Forum Conference — “Disruptors and Decision Makers” — which will take place in Washington, DC on April 22-24, 2015.

This piece first appeared on The Huffington Post. Follow Jane Wales on Twitter for more insights into strategic philanthropy.