Big finance, big myths and a singing heart - RSA

Big finance, big myths and a singing heart


  • Social enterprise

Sometimes everything comes together and it all seems worthwhile.

So it was last night at an event organised by the Profit with Purpose FRSA network. Over a 100 people turned up at the Shell building in Waterloo to hear and participate in a Q and A with sustainability economist Professor Tim Jackson.  Network leaders Kim van Niekerk and Alison Rodwell (supported by network manager Sam Thomas) should be pleased with what was a lively and intelligent discussion.

For me the event spanned two enthusiasms: FRSA networks and corporate responsibility. 

On the latter I got some great insights ahead of my annual lecture in June. We discussed the contrast between what appears to be a real shift in the culture of some large businesses and the apparent resistance to any reform of the finance sector. I talked earlier in the week about the radical ideas of Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo, but to that can be added the visionary thinking of Kingfisher’s Ian Cheshire and of Paul Polman at Unilever. Three swallows, even really important ones, don’t make a summer but each of these leaders is going well beyond traditional CSR to talk about different models of value and business.

But according to one speaker last night, when reading up about Pepsico I had missed a more sobering recent news story. Apparently, investment analysts have told the corporation to stop going on about values and focus more on flogging crisps and fizzy drinks. 

The question – which I want to explore more tomorrow – is why is there so much positive change in the leadership of retail companies and so little among those who manage our money?

I also want to take the opportunity of last night’s event to make an different point. A couple of times recently I have heard the accusation that the RSA has centralised its support for Fellows’ activities. This may be based on the fact that the major areas of increased investment in Fellowship – our team of network managers and the Catalyst fund – are managed from London. But it is wrong and for a very simple reason.

The activities that network managers and Catalyst support all emerge from the enthusiasms and ideas of Fellows.

It was great last night that I was asked to a network looking at something at the front of my mind. But as I go round the country to a variety of events organised by Fellows, with the support of network managers, I find myself discussing issues ranging from design (in Newcastle) to small business (in Brighton) to place shaping (In Leicester) to sustainability (in Bristol).

In the next few days our Scotland network manager Jamie Cooke and the Chair of RSA Scotland will be going to the first ever Highlands FRSA network. They – like me – will have no idea what will emerge from that meeting as a priority for Highland Fellows, but whatever it is (assuming it is within the broad charitable remit of the RSA) we will try to support it.

The recent Fellowship survey showed a high level of awareness and enthusiasm among Fellows for local and issue-based networks. As Fellowship engagement and activity increases Trustees and the Fellowship Council will need to develop a set of protocols around where the RSA brand can be used, and what last resort powers of intervention may be needed if a network seems to be acting in a way that goes outside or damages the RSA’s charitable purpose. But this is about risk management not control. The content of Fellows’ activities will continue to be determined by them and supported by us.

Some people may find this too permissive, arguing that Fellows’ energies should be channelled in particular directions. Some others believe that local activities should require sanctioning by regional committees (not that this is by any means the majority view of our regions), but why create constraints unless there is evidence of a problem? 

When I look out over the Fellowship – from Plymouth to Inverness, from Newcastle to New York - I see more and more people doing great stuff in a way that enhances the RSA’s image and impact as a fount of social innovation.  And, at the risk of sounding mawkish, it makes my old heart sing.

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