In November of last year, when we were sailing down the Eastern Seaboard of the USA, I had the honour of being invited to give a lecture at Columbia University, New York, at their Global Executive MBA. I presented the Oceans of Hope (OOH) project as a case story to exemplify what I mean by Corporate Social Action.
OOH aims to change perceptions of MS, to show what is possible in spite of a chronic and disabling disease and to inspire people to take up the challenges of their daily life. The project helps people empower themselves and recapture their identity.
Other than being a project targeting people living with MS, health care personnel and the general public, OOH is an example of Corporate Social Responsibility done with a twist. The twist consists in the essential part of activating both the main target group (people living with MS) of a corporation (Biogen), the employees in the corporation and the local communities in a sustainable way. Traditionally, many corporations, including the pharma and biotech industry, engage the target group in charity-like events as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility policy. Unlike this Corporate Social Action involves and empowers people (in this case people living with MS) by creating genuine inclusion and acceptance and inspiring to find and focus on resources and possibilities and to re-gain the courage to take up personal challenges. Corporate Social Action encourages the local community to create sustainable solutions and facilitates the process. In the particular case of Oceans of Hope the action and inclusion is essential in order to break the vicious circle of shame and social isolation, which many people with a chronic disease experience and instead establish a community and a way of being together, which creates pride and feelings of worthiness and belonging.
Charity arrangements, in which healthy people engage in activities to raise money for sick people could, unintentionally, position the sick as helpless and the helpers as ‘good’. But it might add to the patients’ feelings of shame and low self-esteem instead of including and empowering the individual and the group.
OOH represents a strong narrative and an organisational structure in which the narrative can be lived out. The values of the movement and the organisation are put into action around the world in a very visible way and in a confined and conspicuous community: a sailboat. This represents a metaphor of any community or corporation and makes Oceans of Hope a platform of identification. It is a way of being together, knowing that we depend upon each other and that everybody contributes with something unique. You can work fearlessly as part of the MS crew on S/Y Oceans of Hope. The Oceans of Hope project not only creates an empowering community, we also point out a direction; we are going somewhere: Around the world, from port to port. As much as we emphasize so-called soft values, we are doing a pretty strong thing by sailing the oceans in a sailboat! And when we say we are going to be in a specific port at a specific date, we will be there! And we have, so far, done so during our journey putting 20.000 nautical miles behind us. This is the direction we set: Combining a way of being together with ambitious accomplishments. Changing people’s lives and being pioneers of a trend at the same time. Who wouldn´t like to work in a company representing values like that! This is a very good reason to get up in the morning and go to work.
Any value-based company that wants to engage in Corporate Social Action should do so to stimulate the internal engagement of their employees. I argue, however, that a precondition for success is an already existing alignment of values meaning that the company says what it does and does what it says it will do. If such an alignment exists a Corporate Social Action engagement in a project such as Oceans of Hope will amplify and strengthen the corporate values and integrity and consequently help mobilize the most important resources of any corporation if you want to create results: The employees.
As a consequence of this, I argue that leaders who want to engage in a Corporate Social Action project should ask themselves the following questions: What is the legitimacy of my company in the world and why do my employees go to work in the morning – in my company?
If you want to hear our MS Crew tell the story of their Oceans of Hope journey and let yourself, your team or organization be inspired, please contact us for further information: firstname.lastname@example.org