CR Leaders Corner: Carol Atwood, Spartacus Media Enterprises
Business, Finance, and Media That Matters: A Conversation with Carol Atwood
Back in the 1990s, then-Harvard Business School professor J. Gregory Dees described the convergence of characteristics and principles governing non-profit and profit organizations, a nexus he dubbed “social entrepreneurship”. At that time, he was developing HBS’ Social Enterprise Initiative, and then went on to launch Stanford’s Center for Social Innovation and Duke’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship [CASE], where he continues to work.It was through Dees’ efforts at HBS where Marcy Murninghan first met Carol Atwood (they collaborated on the project, “Investing in Media That Matters: A Gathering at Sundance Village"), whose career embodies this convergence: use the private sector to create social change. Her chosen strategy: use business, finance, and media to leverage opportunities for making a positive difference. Atwood also contributes to new, sustainable models of capital markets and business management through her current board membership with King Arthur Flour, the Calvert Foundation and Calvert’s Community Investment Partners, and IW Financial. Carol Atwood founded Spartacus Media Enterprises to increase the flow of capital to media and education for social change. More recently, she is working to establish new norms in the extractive industry / mining sector—particularly through consumer education about “eco-gold” and the value of recycled gold. Africa has caught her attention as she supports organizations working to eradicate HIV/AIDS, empower women, reduce poverty, and provide access to education. Over the years, she has advised a host of groups – the Social Investment Forum, the Initiative for Responsible Investment at Harvard’s Kennedy School, The CSR Group, and more – which informs her sense of what works and what doesn’t, and where the opportunity gaps reside. AccountAbility Senior Research Fellows Marcy Murninghan and Bill Baue posed the following 10 Questions to Carol Atwood. Marcy Murninghan: You‘ve participated in many cross-sector and public-private partnerships. What key qualities do you look for in partnership initiatives? And what warning signs alert you to possible problems—particularly when multiple parties are involved? Carol Atwood: We are living in a world in which cross-sector and public-private partnerships have become essential to all stakeholders’ core missions. Whether on a global, country or local level, the world has transformed in such a way that the old boundaries of ‘siloed sectors’ have become blurred. In fact, many discrete sectors are converging with others and are in the process of re-forming in ways that have not yet been determined. Plus, we now live in a world where perhaps we may never truly reform in any permanent sense. The new rules appear to be that change is iterative, requiring flexibility to adapt with every new seismic shift in world populations (such as the current so called Arab Spring) or technology (the latest kind of social media tools). As change presents itself, we need to be open to viewing our world with open eyes that are not framed by the lens of previous views of what reality is. I know this all sounds quite esoteric at best and difficult to imagine as a framework for guiding one’s actions going forward, yet the current and future status quo suggests that in the long term, there will be no status quo! Bill Baue: Can you give us a tangible example? Carol Atwood: Here’s a well-known illustration, from the silver screen, on the need for cross-sector partnerships. It requires you to suspend disbelief that my sense of the framework within which we are all now working and living is accurate. I have been focusing so much of my time lately on the levers that allow better stakeholder engagement, to ensure marginalized people and environments of the world are empowered to build sustainable communities (financially, socially and environmentally). That’s why I would like to frame my thoughts using the struggles, opportunities, and lessons portrayed in the movie Avatar. Avatar is a powerful movie, and not just from an entertainment or technical standpoint. More significantly (for me at least), the film is a metaphor for the changing landscape I described, and how it affects:
who is considered a stakeholder, and possible cross-sector and public-private partnerships that now make sense for all who sit at the table;
the need for everyone to recognize cross-sector partnerships are not just as additive to their core missions, but now are essential to their success; and
the rules of engagement, which affect the voices of those who were once perceived to be disenfranchised and therefore not involved. Now they have a voice, through advocates, governments, new rules of law, social media, smart phones, and other emerging disruptive technologies. They’re part of a shared vision, which is enabled by all of these stakeholders supporting previously less-represented segments of the world’s population.
 [Note: Paul Ylvisaker, a giant in philanthropy and later Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and The Ford Foundation, developed the program-related investment model in the late1960s. It was a precursor to socially responsible investing. The Ford Foundation provides a bit of context on its website.]