Some of the most important contributions from private industry in support of public causes happened “way” back in the early 1900s, when business leaders like Rockefeller, Ford and Carnegie directed their personal and corporate fortunes to impact social change. Throughout the 1920s, the Rockefeller family designed and financed a network of trails throughout Acadia National Park, among other sizeable contributions to education and public health. Andrew Carnegie’s foundation is credited with establishment of more than 2,500 libraries across the U.S., Canada and Britain, many within university and public systems. In 1983, American Express introduced consumers to cause-related marketing with its Statue of Liberty restoration project that spawned the now-ubiquitous marketing strategy that (when done well) serves the self-interest of companies and nonprofits. Whether it’s termed philanthropy, cause-marketing, or represents the social aspect of a corporation’s CSR program, private industry involvement in advancing social change has been around for some time – and has often been a source of controversy.
A case in point is the collaboration between media mogul Ted Turner and the state of Montana to make safe the grazing lands of 87 wild American bison. In a recent story that merited a front page placement in the New York Times, we learned that Mr. Turner’s vast ranch was providing shelter to the animals who benefited from a larger grazing area, less disease and increased reproduction. Environmentalists critical of the arrangement argued that the state was 100% obligated to protect the species, while the state’s wildlife managers saw Mr. Turner’s ranchlands and expertise as serving an urgent need for the once-threatened species. This criticism (and legal action) came despite Mr. Turner’s well-documented support of U.S. ranchlands and environmental causes (reinforced by being the country’s largest private land owner) and Montana’s need for innovative ways to protect the bison.
Should we discount the role and contributions of private industry in tackling public issues because of potential backlash? There’s no question that not all public/private collaborations are a good fit. They need to be vetted carefully to ensure transparency and societal benefit. But the issues society faces – from pollution to poor public health – are caused by multiple determinants, and they require a multi-faceted approach that includes all aspects of society. How can we hope to accomplish change without the involvement – and resources – of the private sector? As recent history has proven, we need everyone at the table to devise and deliver meaningful solutions to societal challenges.