Work Social- the philanthropy angle on Davos


Unfortunately, almost certainly due to an administrative error, my invitation to this year’s World Economic Forum at Davos seemed to go missing. Luckily, however, thanks to the many articles written by attendees, and even more so to the tweets from people actually at the event, I was (along with many others) still able to keep abreast of what was happening. And it appears to have been an interesting year from the perspective of a philanthro-wonk like myself, with discussion of social responsibility, the role of leadership, and the use of technology to further philanthropy all on the agenda.

Here are some of the interesting tidbits I picked up (largely thanks to Matthew Bishop of The Economist, it has to be said).

  • During the forum on “e-philanthropy”, Eric Schmidt of Google said that the new generation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs were much more likely to incorporate social values into their businesses. Apparently a “1-1-1 model”, where a company gives away 1% of annual profits, 1% of its equity and 1% of its employees’ time, which was pioneered by, has become the norm for most new start-ups. This is really interesting, as the power of incorporating generosity into the organisational structure of a firm has the potential to have a huge impact on corporate philanthropy. And the time to do that is at inception- after all, it is far easier to agree to give away 1% when a company is worth nothing than it is when it is valued in the billions of dollars.
  • During the same forum, Tim Berners-Lee (The “father of the Internet”) made a suggestion from the floor about using technology to create a new sort of “extreme accountability”. He suggested that anyone receiving a donation should be expected to publish on the web exactly what they do with it at every stage until it reaches its final destination. An interesting idea certainly, and a radical solution to the problem of transparency potentially, but surely this is not workable without some pretty major investment in reporting and measurement systems?
  • In the “brainstorm” session, it was argued that the role of leadership is crucial both in terms of individual philanthropy and in terms of setting corporate culture. To this end, it was suggested that every CEO should sign the ‘giving pledge‘ to show they get it that their wealth is due in part to the society they live in. Also it was proposed that CEOs need to take the lead in driving their company’s social value strategy. Both of these would be positive moves to my mind: the success of the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge so far shows the importance of social norms in driving giving behaviour, while positioning the responsibility for the social value strategy of a business firmly with the CEO would avoid the danger of the sort of increasingly outdated CSR approach where it is just seen as an add-on to be left to the marketing or HR department.
  • In the brainstorm session, it was also proposed that every business should make a firm commitment to measuring its full economic, social and environmental impact by signing up to the UN Global Compact and the Global Reporting Initiative.
  • There was also some mention of going further and considering some of the new legal forms that build social elements into the core of a business, such as the “B Corporation” model recently launched in the US.

There is certainly some interesting food for thought on a number of topics. And despite the cynicism of some, who feel that this global get-together for the ultra-powerful captains of industry is increasingly irrelevant in today’s world, there is an obvious benefit to getting a forum like Davos to engage with these issues. If only a few of these leaders are converted and start to put some of these ideas into practice, it could have a real impact on the way the business world thinks about its role in society.

Rhodri Davies

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