WASHINGTON, DC — Collaboration, consortiums and coalitions between businesses and organisations with similar values can effect lasting societal impact, but tangible change can take much longer than expected, according to speakers at the PRovokeGlobal summit this week.

In a panel session on ‘Making radical values part of the playbook”, Finn Partners' chair of global health and purpose Gil Bashe led a conversation on how companies and organisations are becoming entangled in societal issues that were once the primary domain of policymakers, including gender equity, gun violence, food poverty and reproductive rights.

At Levi Strauss, which has been engaged with a number of societal issues over the years, corporate and internal communications leader Elizabeth Owens said: “We have over time been led by our values and approach a lot of current issues as business issues: how do they impact our communities and how do employees respond? When we decide what to take a stand on, it’s what our employees care about, whether reproductive rights or gun violence prevention. We always start with the business problem and our employees.

“Our goal is to be on the right side of history and speak up on issues that matter. On gun violence, it started because we were finding people taking guns into our changing rooms when they were trying on pants; now we have more than 500 companies involved. There is power in coalitions and the voice of companies is magnified when they are part of a chorus. We need those companies who are on the tip of the sword, and also companies who make space for those who come up behind them.”

At Finn Partners, founder and CEO Peter Finn told the summit that he had been inspired to lead on collective action to make societal change both by his father, PR pioneer and Ruder Finn co-founder David Finn, in the values he put in place when starting the firm, and also by personal experience in his own community.

“My father was an idealist and I was very much inspired by him. One of our seven founding values is to use our collective abilities to make the world a better place. That value came out of 15 years of experience outside the workplace. We had a family-owned property in Hunter, in upstate New York, for over 100 years. The community was in a downward spiral, buildings were collapsing on Main Street and it had turned into a rough bar town that hit rock bottom in 1997 with two late night bar-room murders.

"Our response was not ‘we’ve got to get out of here’ — my wife and I had read about communities that could be turned around through arts-based initiatives, so we started the Catskill Mountain Foundation and have now presented thousands of performances and films, started a student art school, and raised over $60 million to invest in community — and others have followed.”

But he said it took far longer than expected to have an impact: “After 10 years, we wondered why nothing was happening, and after 16 years it started to accelerate. Now all the for-sale signs have gone and the local economy is doing extremely well. It took almost 25 years for transformation to take place after building a coalition of people to make a difference. It will take a long time, but you can make the world a better place.”

Another consortium leader on the panel was Andrew Flagel, president of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metro Area, who said “stories of equity are often about transforming access.”

He said the consortium had discovered that a large number of students face food poverty while they are studying: “We help with workforce development and pathways but it’s also about broader and bolder initiatives like affordable housing and improving access to food. And looking at how you dynamically take an innovative approach. Many coalitions are opportunities to bring diverse experts together and find the intersection where we can make a difference in the region and in the world.”

Candice Dixon is the coalition development director of NPower Command Shift Coalition, a cross-industry group of technology firms with a mission to bring women and especially women of colour — who represent only 5% of tech employees globally — into the tech industry. She told delegates that in terms of companies taking a stand on equity, “we have to first provide women with the opportunity to succeed, and to look at the barriers to women pursuing and sustaining careers in technology, but then focus on engaging and inspiring corporate partners to hire and retain women of colour so they can thrive.”

Bashe also asked the panellists whether there was “a secret to creating business communities of harmony in a fractured world”.

At Siemens, chief communications officer Camille Johnston’s response was that “there is no secret sauce — it’s hard work. Coalition makes it easier to make tough decisions, because once you agree where the line is and to cross over together, you hold hands and you move in that environment. You need to be transparent, to get everyone to put their cards on the table and to listen — and then employees expect you to take action when they have been listened to.”

Flagel agreed that listening to fellow members was a core value of coalitions: “We can play the role of conveners of diverse views, to bring together people who really disagree to talk on substantive issues and allow enough oxygen in the room to listen.”

Dixon’s view was that coalitions could cut through by focusing on facts: “The work we’re doing that gets people to listen is that we lead with data. Despite fake news and fake facts, data is at the core of what we’re doing, and it also provides coalition members the opportunity to learn from each other and apply this to the work they are doing.”

Owens added: “It is hard work and it is so important. It’s good to know what other people are doing because you’re not the only one facing it. Employees and stakeholders might not always approve of what we’re doing, but if it is guided by our values, teams know they are part of something bigger that they can believe in.”