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Why Is It Difficult to Align Strategy with Social Impact?

By Regina Lee

In Michael Porter’s 1996 article “What is Strategy?”, he defined a company’s strategy as differentiating its activities from competitors to create a unique and valuable market position.  This article was framed from the perspective of a for-profit company seeking competitive advantage and profit.  However, Columbia Business School’s 2012 Social Enterprise Conference is asking how we can re-frame this narrow definition of strategy and build strategies within and across sectors to make social impact and tackle major social and environmental issues.

There are several challenges to creating coherent strategies across sectors that will align numerous organizations.  First, the desired outcome is not obvious. For-profit companies can rally around maximizing shareholder value as the indisputable goal, but it is difficult for organizations fighting poverty to determine which outcomes could be measured to signal success.  Second, it is arguable which activities will most effectively lead to a desired outcome to reduce poverty or improve public health.  This continues to be true though organizations are using innovative data approaches to measure their outcomes. Finally, even with a game plan, financial incentives generally don’t exist to propel various organizations to execute on a single strategy.  In addition, the sources of funds and the priorities of funders can dictate the substance of many strategies.

And yet, there are large-scale success stories, such as the global fight against malaria.  The vision is simple but colossal: eradicate malaria.  The Roll Back Malaria Partnership (RBMP) was created in 1998 to implement coordinated action against malaria by aligning countries, multilateral organizations, NGOs and the private sector.  The partnership has focused on four major activities to fight malaria, including long-lasting insecticidal nets, indoor residual spraying, rapid diagnostic tests, and combination therapies.  Though there is still a lot of work to be done and sustaining global funding is major concern, there have been significant gains thus far.  Since 2000, 43 countries have decreased malaria cases by more than 50 percent, according to RBMP.   Kate Campana from Malaria No More is joining us at the conference to discuss the challenges and successes her organization has faced as they create media awareness campaigns as part of this broader strategy to eradicate malaria.

At the October 5th conference, we will challenge attendees to think about their organization’s current strategy to achieve a social or environmental goal, and how this strategy could be aligned with the broader actors in the sector.  There are numerous opportunities for strategic collaboration within and across the social, business, and government sectors – our challenge is to figure out the coordination and incentives necessary to make it happen.

Regina Lee is a student at Columbia Business School and a Co-Chair of the business school’s Social Enterprise Conference and Net Impact Chapter. Prior to attending Columbia, Regina worked in management consulting for Bain & Company and The Bridgespan Group.

[Image credit: gulfman1, Flickr]

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