Photo: Spencer Murphy

We need acom­mon vision

Based in the UK, Spain, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong, SIX offers an entry point to global social innovation and cross-sector collaboration. As CEO of SIX, Louise Pulford covers the development of new global cross-sector programmes and is responsible for collaboration with foundations.

How can socie­ties improve their future viabi­lity and streng­then their resilience?

For a long time, we had this idea that resi­li­ence is some­thing we draw on only in a crisis.

And that’s not the case?

In today’s post-Covid world, we are facing a range of other, diffe­rent crises. We are reali­sing that we need to do a lot of things better, espe­ci­ally in the social/charity sector. It would be reck­less to set the issue of resi­li­ence aside until there’s an actual crisis. Because in a crisis, things tend to move very fast. That’s when we realise what is happe­ning and what it takes to create a resi­li­ent society.

What does it take?

Rela­ti­onships and cohe­sion are important. It’s crucial to work on common solu­ti­ons – and to do that before we find oursel­ves in the centre of a crisis. This is chal­len­ging for insti­tu­ti­ons, parti­cu­larly phil­an­thro­pic ones.

Is resi­li­ence just about being prepared for a crisis?

It’s clearly about more. It’s about society’s funda­men­tal values, which we need to streng­then. That will ensure we are better prepared for crises. In a crisis there is a stron­ger focus on those values. Covid provi­ded an excel­lent exam­ple here. The pande­mic situa­tion showed us how important values such as soli­da­rity are and how quickly they can be ques­tio­ned – or even vanish altog­e­ther. So we need to be much better prepared and ensure that our funda­men­tal values are more firmly engrai­ned in our society. 

‘It would be reck­less to set the issue of resi­li­ence aside until there’s an actual crisis.’

Louise Pulford, CEO of SIX

Is a bottom-up approach or a top-down approach more likely to succeed here?

People want to be in control of their own fate. For change to work in society, people and insti­tu­ti­ons need tools and resour­ces to help faci­li­tate and acce­le­rate change. We need to empower indi­vi­du­als and give them respon­si­bi­lity. Because insti­tu­ti­ons too are made up of people. If we don’t give society the power to change, it won’t work. So we need both approa­ches: bottom-up and top-down. We need to share responsibilities. 

What role can – or should – foun­da­ti­ons play?

They defi­ni­tely need to take on a much more active role than they do today. Phil­an­thro­pic foun­da­ti­ons, in fact all orga­ni­sa­ti­ons, first need to reflect on their own struc­tures and proces­ses. Everyone’s talking about system change, but without knowing what it really takes. But I believe we need to take a funda­men­tally diffe­rent approach.

What does that involve?

We need social inno­va­tion and we need to learn to cope with uncer­tainty and comple­xity. What are we going to do if we don’t know what’s around the next corner? We need to be flexi­ble and agile. That goes for foun­da­ti­ons too. Having said that, foun­da­ti­ons alre­ady possess a great deal of flexi­bi­lity anyway. 

How so?

Foun­da­ti­ons gene­rally have the flexi­bi­lity to change. They need to reco­g­nise and use that. I expect them to take a good look at their own inter­nal proces­ses. They need to change the way they allo­cate funds, and I think they can. They can afford to take more risks when it comes to allo­ca­ting funds, and if they work colla­bo­ra­tively with other funders to spread the risk, that would be even better. They could involve them­sel­ves more actively in the debate around streng­thening demo­cracy – without having to become invol­ved in party poli­tics. In doing this, foun­da­ti­ons need to iden­tify more rigo­rously as part of society and get other sectors invol­ved. They need to expand their discus­sions beyond their own foun­da­tion gathe­rings. They should speak with govern­ments about how they can provide mutual support and they should exch­ange expe­ri­ence and know­ledge with the private

sector, or even use their power and networks to influence private sector beha­viour. At SIX, we firmly believe that busi­nesses have the power to do good. With frame­works such as ESG and B Corps, the pres­sure is growing on busi­nesses to adopt new values and practices.

So foun­da­ti­ons need to see them­sel­ves as part of a bigger system?

Exactly. And they should move away from just funding projects and invest in orga­ni­sa­ti­ons. That will make the orga­ni­sa­ti­ons more resi­li­ent. Demo­cracy, and demo­cra­tic deve­lo­p­ments, need to func­tion within all orga­ni­sa­ti­ons. This ties in to the way society func­tions as a whole: we work on oursel­ves first, promote these issues and colla­bo­rate with other sectors. That way, we create a new, stron­ger, more joined up society.

Did SIX work more with foun­da­ti­ons in the past and go on to expand its approach?

No. We began with a broa­der approach. For the first seven years we worked on our ecosys­tem. As an orga­ni­sa­tion, we always belie­ved that we needed the best ideas and minds from all walks of life and all sectors if we wanted to get ahead. One of our approa­ches is that NGOs can’t solve today’s chal­lenges alone. It’s down to all of us. The private sector, govern­ments as well as funding orga­ni­sa­ti­ons have a shared respon­si­bi­lity. We are inte­res­ted in how we can increase the cash flow to inno­va­tion. We began working with foun­da­ti­ons when they approa­ched us.

‘Foun­da­ti­ons gene­rally have the flexi­bi­lity to change. They need to reco­g­nise and use that.’

Louise Pulford, CEO of SIX

What drew the foun­da­ti­ons to you?

They were inte­res­ted in our cross­sec­tor acti­vi­ties. They had noti­ced that when they held their events, which were atten­ded solely by repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of the charity sector, the conver­sa­ti­ons cent­red around diffe­rent things. They spot­ted our inno­va­tion pool and were inte­res­ted in our methods.

Would you say there was room for impro­ve­ment where foun­da­ti­ons were concerned?

When we began, foun­da­ti­ons were inte­res­ted in our thoughts about system change and they wanted to learn more about using tools like fore­sight, taking more risks, and cross-sector inter­ac­tion. The foun­da­ti­ons invi­ted us to work with them. We wanted to get to know the dyna­mics of the charity sector and under­stand the problems they are up against. We set up a peer group, consis­ting of around 200 repre­sen­ta­ti­ves from the sector that were consciously inte­res­ted in chan­ging the debate. Working with foun­da­ti­ons and the phil­an­thropy sector is inte­res­t­ing for us, but we’ve always been keen to avoid being siloed. We think in cross-sector ecosys­tems. It’s effec­tive. That’s our play book. It’s important to us to keep an eye on the bigger picture. 

Why do we need social inno­va­tion for the future?

If we want to tackle the coming chal­lenges, we need new ways of resol­ving social issues. And we shouldn’t be driven by deve­lo­p­ment – our ideas should trig­ger deve­lo­p­ment. We need to under­stand what the big issues that lie ahead are.

What do you feel they are?

I recently atten­ded an event about how phil­an­thropy should be thin­king about the future. There were repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of major foun­da­ti­ons on the podium. And they were unable to answer the ques­tion of how phil­an­thropy should handle AI and data. But these deve­lo­p­ments are happe­ning now and they are happe­ning quickly. They are chan­ging society. We need to get ahead of these deve­lo­p­ments. To do that, we will need to deve­lop capa­bi­li­ties in the sector; we must find orga­ni­sa­ti­ons who start by focus­sing on tack­ling the chal­lenges ahead, and then finding the right tools to help them do it most effectively.

Don’t the old approa­ches work any more?

The fact that we need new solu­ti­ons doesn’t mean that what happened in the past doesn’t work. There’s a lot we can learn from the past – espe­ci­ally from indi­ge­nous peop­les, from com-
muni­ties that have been around a lot longer than we have. For us, social inno­va­tion is a ques­tion of reflec­tion. We need to observe which solu­ti­ons are successful in Taiwan, Indo­ne­sia, and other parts of East Asia, the Afri­can conti­nent and so on. We need to share the respon­ses that others have come up with. There are plenty of models to be found else­where. We need to see what we can learn from them and what we can adopt. 

We need to build bridges. Where are these bridges needed most?

From one person to the next. If we succeed in buil­ding effec­tive bridges between people, we will have achie­ved a great deal. Phil­an­thropy or govern­ments, in Hong Kong or Colom­bia, old or young – it’s always about people. When you get down to the nitty-gritty, it’s about under­stan­ding one another – our cultures, our drivers, our beliefs, our values. Our actions are shaped by assump­ti­ons about other people and we have a tendency to ‘other’ them. We hear of situa­tions in Africa and think they’re not rele­vant to us. And, of course, in certain respects that’s true. But we can learn a lot and gain rele­vant insights. If we only see the ‘other’ and don’t build bridges, we will fail to estab­lish the resi­li­ence we all need. The bridge from one person to the next is the most important. We need to ask ques­ti­ons and listen. Commu­ni­ca­tion is important. That’s the initia­tive we need.

Do we need a new narra­tive for a resi­li­ent society?

We abso­lut­ely need a new narra­tive. We need a debate that invol­ves the whole of society and focu­ses on what we want to be in our future. A lot of western demo­cra­cies find them­sel­ves at a simi­lar point to us in the UK: we live from day to day. People have very little vision of where they want to be or what kind of society they want, what the educa­tion system should look like or how a health­care or care system should func­tion. That kind of debate is missing.

‘We’ll never achieve system change if projects are limi­ted to a year.’

Louise Pulford, CEO of SIX

Who could initiate it?

That would be a task for the poli­ti­cal leaders, but not just them. Other orga­ni­sa­ti­ons, inclu­ding foun­da­ti­ons, can take on this task. They will need to colla­bo­rate and lead on indi­vi­dual issues. We need poli­ti­cal and phil­an­thro­pic leader­ship. And here we come back to the ques­tion of resilience.

Why is that?

Resi­li­ence is proac­tive rather than reac­tive. It is part of this chal­len­ging, high-level debate. Ever­y­thing we do in our coun­try has an impact on what happens in the world. What’s needed is a global debate. We need a vision; for exam­ple, of what the next UN should look like – I’d love to be invol­ved in that. We need this connec­ted­ness if we want to solve problems. 

What is miss­ing at the moment?

We all reco­g­nise that our problems are linked and complex – for exam­ple, when it comes to climate change or the pande­mic. But at the same time, every coun­try is looking for its own solu­ti­ons. We are looking inwards. We are buil­ding walls.

What can we do about that?

We need to involve the whole of society in the debate. That could trig­ger a new dyna­mic. And we need to think long term and broadly. We’re not going to achieve system change in six months or a year. Foun­da­ti­ons need to be aware of that too. We’ll never achieve system change if projects are limi­ted to a year. We all need to do oursel­ves a favour: think in deca­des, tear down silos, follow a colla­bo­ra­tive path and deve­lop a bigger vision of where we want our society to go. 

StiftungSchweiz is committed to enabling a modern philanthropy that unites and excites people and has maximum impact with minimal time and effort.

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