The evolving role of corporate foundations in the innovation space

This article was first published in the Alliance Magazine on September 13, 2019. 

As part of DAFNE’s and EVPA’s C Summit, a breakout session dealt with the evolving role of foundations in the innovation space. The fishbowl session focused on how corporate foundations could inspire innovation and included contributions from: 

  • Daniela Deuber, Head of Social Innovation, BMW Foundation
  • Bennet Barth, Program Manager, BMW Foundation
  • Valérie Faillat, Head of Sanofi Espoir Foundation
  • Annette Jung, Strategic Lead Ashoka Partnership, Philips Foundation

Future Relevance

The general sentiment, led by the BMW Foundation, was that external innovation is relatively easy to fuel through impact investments, accelerators and partnerships (operative word “relatively”). But true impact is driven by bringing innovation into the core business. 

In that spirit, BMW had set up an accelerator program focused on social entrepreneurs, ProjectTogether (https://projecttogether.org). The program is designed to give BMW and its brand MINI access to strategic insights for the future of society. One of the key success factors was early alignment with senior leadership and executives to identify the strategic questions that the company would have to answer in the future. 

“It was not about getting access to startups but to explore models that are far-reaching and strategic”. An example was the question of how city life will develop in the next decade or two. This societal vision is a direct input into MINI’s and BMW’s strategies. 

At Yunus Social Business, we call this “creating corporate relevance”. As our lives are radically changing, so are our values and priorities. We see that most companies are ill-prepared to answer how they will stay relevant in a changing society. The automotive industry is facing nothing less than extinction. It is inspiring to see that companies like BMW do have the foresight to acknowledge that and to explore entirely new areas beyond business as usual.

Lead or follow?

Annette from the Philips Foundation led the charge to provide insights into whether corporate foundations should be an innovation leader or follow the corporate into sectors it deems most promising. Her point was that it is complementary and highlighted a concrete example from Kenya.

There, Philips is helping pregnant women by equipping midwifes with portable ultrasounds. While this significantly improves prenatal care, it is also cheaper for the patient to get the service from a midwife rather than from a doctor. And for the midwife, it is an additional source of income. 

This approach follows the company by leveraging innovative assets like portable ultrasounds. At the same time, it leads the way by highlighting new distribution channels, business models and non-technological health determinants.

Valerie from Sanofi Espoir Foundation reinforced this message, saying that more than 80% of healthcare outcomes are influenced by non-tech determinants like social factors or infrastructure. And thanks to the foundation’s work in markets that the company is not active in, it brings in expertise around additional determinants to further inform product and service development. 

Generating Buy-In

A key challenge that was raised by many participants in the subsequent discussion was how to generate buy-in from key stakeholders within the company. 

As is reflected in our own research with 50+ social intrapreneurs, inspiration plays a major role. Some intrapreneurs went as far as inviting executives to field trips to experience impact first-hand. BMW focused on getting employees and executives involved as mentors to work directly with social entrepreneurs. 

Another hack highlighted by both BMW Foundation as well as Philips Foundation was to heavily integrate “early adopters” into the process. These are individuals that are excited about the initiative and serve as strong advocates within the company. 

In our own experience with the MAN Impact Accelerator, we also saw how quite senior corporate mentors from the first batch of the program started heavily advocating the program throughout the company because of their positive experience with it. 

And, of course, everyone agreed that making business benefits explicit to stakeholders is essential. A participant went as far as joking that “you should end every sentence with ‘and this is why we sell more products’”. In that spirit, our research with the Boston Consulting Group illustrates key business benefits of engaging in inclusive/social business initiatives.

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