Fair Enough!

The Table of Trust reconvened in June in Zurich, and if you missed our coverage of the Brussels edition, the topic remains the just transition. How can we transition to a green economy while keeping the needs of people firmly on the table?  

Fair Enough!

To answer this, we brought to our table leaders in finance, philanthropy, social innovation and impact. As a nod to our Swiss surroundings, we entitled the dinner “Fair & Neutral.” While outright neutrality wasn’t the aim of the discussion (bold opinions are more than welcome in this space), the dialogue showed a persistent open-mindedness. We tackled fairness from many angles, existential ones included. The question of what is fair belies a far trickier one: fair to who? The smallholder farmer does not have the same needs as the chef nor those at the table eating the food. When discussing who stands to benefit from a green economy, we had to first acknowledge the stark disparity in needs present in an issue this global. Then we started breaking things down a bit.  


Fair play 

If our goal is a green transition that’s fair to people, then we must also investigate the fairness in the systems and tools we use. “When we think of fairness in the context of impact investing,” said Roberta, “it's about making sure that the financial system works, not just for financial returns, but for people and planet. We work to understand the embedded bias in economic and political systems, and how we can balance out this bias for ventures that have a social and environmental benefit.”    

We discussed fairness in philanthropy, too. After acknowledging the inherent power imbalance of philanthropy, where those with capital often make decisions for those without, we moved on to ask how our tablemates strived for balance. One shared how her foundation sought equal partnership between funders and grantees, with shared decision-making. “We sit together at the table,” she said, “literally a table where the grantees and the donors have equal voting rights, and they have a chance then to decide on which of the projects are a shared priority. They negotiate with us, and can say, ‘this project just doesn’t cut it.’”

Tablemates representing banks and asset managers noted the challenges of shifting mindsets towards fairness in their context. “With a foundation linked to a large bank,” one tablemate asked, “How do you try and slowly push that financial system to think differently?” 

No easy answer. However, since there was a critical mass of economic thinkers present, we spent time reviewing the (un)fairness of market financialization. This decades-long process has had its winners and losers – its own language, too. One tablemate wondered whether this was the right language to apply to the just transition. “We are trying to solve problems in the same way we have created the problems…” he began. “So, I wonder whether the starting point is really to challenge yourself on the language and the measure of success.”


Measure of success  

Transparent and standard measurement remains a pain point in our sector. Tablemates noted the need for better knowledge sharing around measurement, one proposing “a platform whereby people have agreed on given standards of measuring and reporting, and an open architecture.” 

For an impact organisation, limited comparability gets in the way of building trust with people and organisations outside it. If one accepts the premise that we need more impact players to achieve ‘success’ in the green transition, then success must be defined in a measurable, comparable way, intelligible to those new players. As leaders, we need to move fast and be decisive, but without transparent measurement, we risk alienating those who could become collaborators.  And those seeking to enter the impact space want better transparency, too. Without it, their most impactful ideas are non-starters, as there’s little chance of getting buy-in. One tablemate encapsulated the effect: “Transparency leads to trust leads to accountability.” 


Hold us accountable 

Accountability was something we wanted to ask our tablemates about; it was interesting to observe how the discussion got there organically, by discussing what builds trust. Those at the table had in common a desire to be accountable for impact at the organisational level. But we also asked: how do we create accountability in the system we're trying to shift?  

In response, some tablemates recognised the value of localised solutions. “Local risks are best appraised, understood and mitigated by local capital,” one investor pointed out. A place-based approach to the just transition made sense, tablemates seemed to agree. Leslie gave the example of fashion: to achieve a green transition in a place like Bangladesh, there will be job loss, as brands nearshore for various reasons, climate being one of them. It will take deep knowledge and plenty of foresight to determine where new jobs will come from. Specifically, it will take local knowledge and foresight – not to shift accountability to local actors, as accountability should remain shared, but to bring local actors into the ecosystem as partners. Partner and not – gasp! – competitors.


No competition 

Our end goal of the Table of Trust is to build trust and forge partnerships. Competition can put that process at risk. While we covered competition in the first edition of the Table of Trust, the dinner in Zurich turned more specific about the mindset shift that will be necessary to ensure competition doesn’t stand in our way.

Several tablemates supported the notion that zero-sum thinking was a large part of what keeps people thinking they’re competitors. Some were realistic about competition in our space, some outright pessimistic (noting how impact actors need to compete for scarce resources), but we found common ground in the need to stop seeing the achievement of shared goals as ‘losses.’ A win for one can be a win for all.

A connected piece of advice from a tablemate: “We need to get rid of our egos.” 


“For the joy” 

Towards the end of the evening, we found another piece of common ground, less tied to practicalities like KPIs or big ideas like competition vs. collaboration. A philanthropic leader at the table shared their experience from a recent summit with philanthropists. ‘Why do you do philanthropy?’ they were asked.

The unexpected answer: joy. The joy of seeing positive change.

Human connections, love and joy are valid reasons for doing we do what we do – and that big ‘we’ includes impact people. This is not to say that transparency, accountability and trust can be built on feelings. Far from it. Still, sometimes we need to remember the heart along with the head.


Table of Trust leaders will reconvene at the Impact Leaders gathering in Venice on 2-3 September. Harnessing the insights from these dinners, we’ll join together to make tangible commitments and plan next actions for the just transition.