10/01/2012 05:45 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

Business and the Grand Challenges

In New York City, it's the season for tackling the Grand Challenges. On one side of town, the UN is now in session, and the streets are filled with presidents, prime ministers, ambassadors and their entourage.

Across town in Times Square, the Clinton Global Initiative just wrapped up their annual forum for both talk and taking action. World leaders were featured, but the stage was shared with their counterparts in business and "civil society." The agenda? Tackling the very, very big issues: economic opportunity and job creation, climate change, poverty, hunger and "food security." Difficult, almost intractable problems.

Among all the talk and good intentions, one knotty problem persists: How does large scale change actually take root?

The Clinton platform seems to have developed a viable model; working through member "commitments," a pledge of cash or capacity, or often both, applied to a Grand Challenge. Alcoa, for example, just announced an important $2MM package of grants and partnerships to move the needle on low recycling rates in the U.S.. Deutsche Bank committed a new $50MM credit facility to back social enterprises. Typically, the featured company is working in partnership with one or more nonprofits, sometimes including universities and trade groups. Last year, PepsiCo pledged to work alongside the World Food Programme and USAID to help Ethiopian farmers feed malnourished children.

The Clinton platform promotes public-private partnerships, as a way for business to align itself with nonprofit or government capacity, and vice versa.

Today, a company's motivation to involve itself in such initiatives only grows: there is opportunity to link a company's brand with social goals -- the kind of goals that resonate with employees, new recruits, the public and those who offer the the license to operate and influence industry regulation. Sometimes a commitment can even deliver top line or bottom line results. For Alcoa, recapturing aluminum is consistent with their environmental goals, but it also delivers raw material with tangible value. This is a good thing.

But as important and useful as the Clinton platform is, let's face reality. An individual corporate brand rarely matches the complexity of the issue at hand. The demonstration value should not be underestimated, but on problems as complex as waste recovery, global warming, or human trafficking -- which President Obama addressed in his speech at CGI, government action is also critical, especially the kinds of policies that influence behavior, set market conditions and raise the bar.

However, in an era where the private sector seems like a better bet than government, what more can business do to move from company initiative to systemic change? Here are two avenues to pursue:

One is to ratchet up business to business partnership -- B2B collaboration. Before Alcoa announced its new campaign, it did something remarkable. It invited other business actors, from competitors to suppliers to soft drink manufacturers to retailers, all of whom have a role to play in the recycling of aluminum cans, to commence an action-oriented dialogue. To do this well, to get your competitors to play along, it cannot be about your own brand. Alcoa's action goes way beyond the typical public-private partnership. It has the potential to move the beast. Other companies are working to advance B2B collaborations as well, and smart NGOs today, like BSR, specialize in industry working groups for that reason.

Second, business leaders need to raise their voice in setting policy that puts the long-term health of society first. Business is the most influential institution we have. We need business to weigh in on policy if we are to reach large scale change.

In Roger Martin's book Fixing the Game, he captures the connective tissue between business and government. The civil foundation of any society is not static, he says. As an economy advances, so do the laws and norms that support the system--be it health and safety laws or public infrastructure. As "major actors in modern society" Rogers reminds us that global-trotting companies have the potential to deeply affect the evolution of the civil foundation -- for good or for ill. The ones that consistently work to "add bricks to and strengthen the robustness of the foundation" deserve our support. It goes way beyond what we typically think of as social responsibility.

The complexity of this task on the global stage is daunting; companies like Alcoa that are working in a strategic way to enhance society, may also strengthen the business. Let's hope so.