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The Vital Role of Business in Addressing Societal Challenges

May 03, 2011

(Robert L. Smith is senior director of corporate responsibility for Eli Lilly and Company and president of the Lilly Foundation).

Lilly_cha_logo Eli Lilly and Company, like many companies, is changing the way we think about corporate responsibility. In the past, we generally focused our efforts on a set of financial obligations, primarily cash and product donations. However, our approach is changing, and for the better.

We know that the business of helping people become healthy involves more than medicine. Other factors such as access to care, education, and economic opportunity play important parts. It's vital that we as a company understand how these factors affect outcomes in human terms. Our greatest opportunities are global, and to seize these opportunities, we must see them. This means we must leave our offices, our labs, and our comfort zones.

On March 31, Lilly -- along with our charitable nonprofit partner, Cross Cultural Solutions -- announced that during 2011 we will send two hundred Lilly employees on company-paid, two-week international volunteer assignments. More than eighteen hundred of our people applied for the program, which we are calling "Connecting Hearts Abroad" (CHA). The first two hundred Lilly Ambassadors selected for this honor are from thirty-eight countries and represent all ranks and functions in our company. Throughout the year, they will be deployed in teams of eight or nine people to locations where care is greatly needed in South and Central America, Africa, and Asia.

CHA represents how Lilly is developing a broader commitment to corporate responsibility. The world's major societal challenges -- poverty, hunger, inconsistent access to quality education and health care, as well as environmental degradation -- are directly affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world. They also indirectly affect us all. Along with governments, NGOs, and others, the business community -- particularly multinational corporations -- can and must play a more active and productive role in helping to address these remarkably complex problems. The reasons go beyond being the "right thing to do." If we go about our work in the right way, corporate responsibility can be the profitable thing to do, as well.

This notion of working toward meaningful win/win solutions has been a hot topic in the corporate responsibility arena. For example, Harvard's Michael Porter and Mark Kramer made a compelling case for creating shared value in the January/February 2011 edition of the Harvard Business Review. Specifically, they suggest that when companies strategically identify the intersection of social needs with their business opportunities and capabilities, new ideas and innovation can emerge. The result: companies will make greater and more enduring contributions to society and improve their bottom lines. Put another way, they write: "Shared value focuses companies on the right kinds of profits --profits that create social benefits rather than diminish them." They argue that this could be the future of capitalism.

For Lilly, a shared value approach motivates us to rigorously evaluate how our company can improve the health of people who are currently underserved. Specifically, given our expertise in non-communicable diseases -- especially diabetes -- we believe that, over time, we can help generate meaningful answers to these complex and burgeoning health challenges, which affect millions of people living in low-income, resource-constrained environments.

The center of gravity for our early efforts has been our core corporate responsibility team. However, to create significant shared value, we need to integrate this thinking deeply into the central energies of our company. We must convince a critical mass of people to view improving health for the underserved as more than just a philanthropic endeavor. More specifically, we need all of our people to consider the possibilities -- for both Lilly and patients -- to systematically employ our remarkable business capabilities in supporting those who are struggling to access improved health.

This brings me back to our Connecting Hearts Abroad Program. CHA combines our passion for innovation and caring, which leads to obvious benefits for our company. Our participating ambassadors have the opportunity to help those in need. Despite what many write and say about large corporations, it is an incontrovertible fact that organizations like Lilly consist of smart, dedicated, decent people who have a desire to serve their communities and our global society. For us, CHA provides a wonderful way for many of our people to give back. And, by extension, CHA is a powerful tool that can help us recruit, retain, and engage an even greater workforce with broad perspective about our part in the global health community.

The most compelling opportunity for CHA is the role it might play in generating new, innovative ideas that can improve human health. Our two hundred ambassadors (and the thousands more who engage with them on our internal social media platform) will learn a great deal, not only about new cultures but also the systemic challenges associated with improving health in underserved areas. In many ways, our work to integrate "shared value" concepts into our business is predicated on an increasing number of our people having a deeper appreciation of these profound health needs. By gaining this firsthand exposure, employees can draw upon a new source of intellectual and emotional fuel to generate new ideas—ideas that could make a positive difference for both patients and our company.

All of this reminds me yet again what an exciting time it is to be thinking about the evolving role of business in a global society. Those of us accountable for corporate responsibility and corporate foundations are in a unique position to lead an important set of changes. It's rarely a straight path, but if we are successful, we will have helped our companies and, most importantly, played a role in making the world a better place.

-- Robert L. Smith


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