ARTICLES Event feedback: A business perspective on Civil Society

Event feedback: A business perspective on Civil Society

What do business leaders think about the future of civil society?

Who?  Pioneer business partners from the Forum for the Future network, including representatives form Unilever, Boots, Kingfisher, Marks & Spencers, Innovate UK, Crown Estate

Where?  Elmley Nature Reserve, Kent 

When?  18th Jul 2017

Why?  Part of an annual ‘away day’ with this group who meet regularly and learn together about how to pursue their sustainability ambitions.

What?  Hosting a business focused Civil Society Futures Conversation


What was most surprising / memorable for you about this session/conversation/event?

It was interesting just how difficult people found it to think about what civil society meant for them. One person remarked: “I’ve never thought of these things as civil society – it’s just ‘living’”

Is using the term civil society is a barrier to further participation and understanding of the area?

What were the dilemmas of tensions you noticed in this session/conversation/event?

There is no one approach for businesses to engage with civil society. Where organisations do have a working relationship, it’s important to question and evaluate why you have these relationships you have on a regular basis – it’s easy to forget why you have them, what your shared purpose is and if it still makes sense to relate in the same way. They spoke about how it is also hard to extract yourself from these relationships and to have honest/difficult conversations about what to do and where to go next.

Some of the businesses present admitted that they made a worse decision (from a sustainability point of view) because of vocal groups / reputational risk of taking that choice. It seems that single issue campaigning is very polarising and hard campaigning creates fear and also prevents organisations from making strong statements for fear of being ambushed.

Share one other thing that became evident for you in this session/conversation/event?

Inevitably one of the major differences between business and civil society is the ‘market’ dynamics at play. Being part of markets forces businesses to look at things from a certain way. But there is a need for organisations/perspectives that work out of the force of market dynamics – which often is where civil society comes it. Although of course many civil society organisations are subject to these same market dynamics.

So what?

What does this tell you about civil society in the future?

There’s an aspiration for business and civil society to form a different sort of relationship from the one we have now. Here’s some of the vision statements that emerged from the session:

In 2030 it will be normal for business and civil society to stand up for what they believe in

in 2030 business and civil society will be working together in a challenging yet cooperative way

in 2030 we will find valuable roles and tensions between business and civil society to address societal needs

In 2030 civil society organisation to identify spaces where business don’t cover – collaboratively work on them to fill the gap

In 2030 see civil society led innovation funded by business (rather than business led innovation funded by civil society)

In 2030 business to share the value of civil society in participating and creating better lives for everyone

In 2030 business and civil society working together playing to strengths to contribute to common opportunities

In 2030 businesses see themselves as civil society

In 2030 all businesses will be benefit corporations that have a social and economic purpose solving a societal need

In 2030 civil society and business would be operating in a symbiotic relationship and found a harmony

In 2030 business will have a symbiotic relationship with civil society to create shared value