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Can crisis unlock a force for good among businesses?

Indeed, it can accelerate innovation and spur a willingness to try new things formerly thought too risky.

COVID-19 has sparked fears of a business slowdown, yet it has also uncovered outstanding examples of corporate goodness - the after-effects of which may well outlive the virus.

"Never let a good crisis go to waste."

These implausible words were uttered by Sir Winston Churchill, who led a nation through a devastating world war, and who sagaciously saw how goodness could emerge from the most dire situations.

One will appreciate the paradoxical nature of crises he hinted at in the Chinese word for crisis, which combines two unlikely characters - wei, meaning danger, and ji, which represents opportunity.

In this crisis, what is our great opportunity? Beyond the short-term sale of essential items or insurance policies, what new possibilities lie within this crisis if we can seize them?

Testing resilience

While the Covid-19 outbreak has not reached full crisis proportions - the virus is contained at the point of writing - it has stoked public anxiety and hit businesses hard, forcing them to adapt to survive.

Business continuity plans have kicked in, work-from-home arrangements are commonplace and technology adoption, which faced resistance before, is no longer optional. Without a good crisis, change is often inconvenient and naysayers prevail.

But with such heightened urgency, no excuses are accepted.

Accelerating Innovation

Crises have the potential to accelerate innovation and spur a willingness to try new things formerly thought too risky, simply because now, it is a necessity.

Drone and robot technologies are being introduced in China to deliver medical supplies and food to patients. Could this be adopted for Singapore in non-crises contexts to reduce mundane tasks and enable focus on the work requiring a human touch, such as providing care and handling complex communication?

Diagnostic test kits have been rapidly developed, and Singapore's reliability has been validated by the World Health Organization (WHO). The partnership between government and businesses has further enabled speed-to-market and a boost for the Singapore brand.

There are many existing technologies for remote learning such as the live online tutoring platform offered by Tutopiya or customisable nano-learning systems by ArcLab. Could these platforms and solutions expect an uptake when students and employees are required to be absent from school and work?

Emergencies have a knack for uncovering and accelerating opportunities for innovation - and even goodness - around us.

Unlocking purpose

It is in fire that gold is refined. When others seek shelter, real leaders brave the elements, think beyond themselves and take calculated risks to earn trust and goodwill for the longer term.

For every headline about a business slowdown, there are inspiring accounts of courageous and decisive leaders stepping forward. There are stories of CEOs who reveal themselves not only to be business leaders, but leaders of good, using their resources and influence to bring the community together and uplift others in the process.

In crises, the strength of relationships and businesses rise or fall based on trust.

Organisations with strong partnerships weather cash flow crunches better to ensure survival, and those in strong positions have further leveraged their supply chains to mobilise support for the more vulnerable.

For instance, UOB is preparing 1,000 care packs for low-income families and vulnerable residents, consisting of face masks, anti-bacterial hand sanitisers, hand wash and Vitamin C.

DBS has partnered with its wider network of social enterprises, clients and suppliers to reach out to healthcare and medical staff across local hospitals with free coffee days, meals, healthy snacks and care packages. And for staff at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, OCBC has worked to provide, among other things, up to 1,000 cups of bubble tea daily for the next two weeks, in collaboration with Gong Cha, which has an outlet in the hospital.

Others have made funds available. CapitaLand Hope Foundation, with significant investments in China, has established a 10 million yuan (S$1.99 million) healthcare fund to support relief efforts in the most affected nation.

Here at home, Singapore's largest taxi operator, ComfortDelGro Taxi, has offered financial assistance to cabbies affected by the virus.

Major grocers like NTUC FairPrice and Sheng Siong exhibited moral leadership - responding swiftly to the panic buying in supermarkets by issuing messages of calm and encouraging responsible consumption.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are also punching above their weight. Cleaning company Spic & Span has been disinfecting the premises of social service agencies for free. Some travel agencies have also offered allowances for deferments of holidays, given that many healthcare workers have had their leave frozen. Staff of Joyre TCMedi Spa organised a face mask distribution drive over four days to help the elderly and families in need.

Snack company The Golden Duck teamed up with TSMP Law Corporation to deliver 2,000 halal snacks to Singapore General Hospital, as a gesture of appreciation to frontline nurses, hospital administrators and cleaning professionals.

These are just some examples of businesses that have stepped up to partner others and exemplify the importance of collective action.

As ground needs continue to be mapped and more gaps are identified, we believe corporate involvement will likewise shift towards areas of greater validated need rather than perceived need.

The National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre or NVPC's Company of Good has been helping to facilitate the matching of such offers and requests through the sharing of available opportunities and resources among its 1,500 corporate members. This is being aided by tools such as an open-source community response sheet, where community groups share their initiatives and support needed, and corporates state the resources they can offer.

The Champions of Good initiative run by Company of Good has been strengthening the network of these private and public ambassadors of good to collaborate, recognising that no one succeeds alone these days.

Government and business partnerships have emerged in the Covid-19 situation. In a national emergency, these partnerships require sidelining the company's bottom-line interests in favour of joining forces with government, non-profit groups and the community to weather the storm together.

Similarly, budget measures designed to address the current needs of businesses and the community from Covid-19, such as wage support and tax reliefs from Budget 2020, exemplify stronger partnerships among the government, businesses and community. While some countries saw near extortion levels for the procurement of essentials, Singapore had price controls to reduce concerns about inadequate supply. This was not a product of chance.

A new Zeitgeist?

Since 2008, when the relentless drive for profits led to the global financial crisis, there has been a growing sense that the traditional notion of businesses existing solely to maximise shareholder profits is no longer tenable.

Last August, the American Business Roundtable of 181 top CEOs issued a statement, asserting that the corporation exists for the benefit of all its stakeholders, not only its shareholders.

Millennial and Gen Z consumers are also putting pressure on businesses to look beyond themselves and create value for others, especially on the sustainability front. This was most evident in 2019's youth climate strikes led by the teen activist Greta Thunberg. With millions of youth on her side, the "Greta effect" prompted business and political leaders to confront climate change. Only a few months later, Australia, a country often "self-excused" from climate action due to low urban density and total consumption went up in flames, and again, this crisis brought attention like never before and galvanised businesses, government and citizens to act swiftly together.

Crises draw out these latent pressures. For businesses, the rising expectations of stakeholders for corporate responsibility is increasingly becoming a norm.

Businesses need to reframe their position in the ecosystem of stakeholders: from one where profit-maximisation is at the centre of the equation, to one where the business is but one party in a constellation of stakeholders serving a wider purpose.

This "Copernican" shift from the firm at the centre towards a common purpose around which stakeholders relate is championed by new economists pioneering new ways to measure value creation. Chief economist of Mars Bruno Roche advances the concept as the Economics of Mutuality and urges businesses to measure their financial, social, environmental and human capital and refocus on purpose at the centre of their business models and strategy.

Tomorrow's business leaders are societal leaders that are able to galvanise broader systems around a common purpose and create a more sustainable win-win for all, and not unilateral optimisation.

A sustainable future

If done well, the returns on multilateral partnerships can outlive a crisis and build up a company's trust bank with clients, partners and employees alike, and build resilience to withstand inevitable future shocks.

Perhaps the clearest gain is reputational. People remember stories of selfless deeds and moral courage. But this in turn can have knock-on effects, improving brand equity, employee loyalty and talent recruitment, particularly as more job-seekers gravitate towards companies that have a clear purpose and stand for something.

As every business operates with and through supply chains and partnerships, crises give all an opportunity to build a reservoir of goodwill. This can extend cash flow through measures which cut back but not cut off workers, and liberalise lines of credit where necessary to keep businesses going. Such alliances and choices invest in future dividends but can also shore up short-term losses in revenue.

However, businesses should not exploit emergencies for shallow gains and publicity.

Companies that show sustained efforts in doing good will certainly gain more respect than those interested only in quick wins. Consumers are savvy and can discern if a company's actions are genuine.

So let us approach Covid-19 with confidence and embrace the opportunity it gives businesses to distinguish themselves as leaders and champions of goodness.

Take the first step by j the Champions of Good community today and together, let us build a City of Good!

Melissa Kwee is CEO of NVPC, Quek Shiyun is head of Company of Good, NVPC

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