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Lilly CEO: Find overlap between corporate mission, philanthropy

November 18, 2016

Eli Lilly and Co. CEO John Lechleiter believes the mission of a for-profit business shouldn’t just be to earn a profit — even though that might not be what board members want to hear.

“Rather, a successful business must have a mission that, when achieved, produces a profit,” Lechleiter said. “In other words, a successful business must be aimed at fulfilling a need. As the business serves society and creates value for those whom it serves, it earns a return for its investors.”

Lechleiter, who will retire at the end of the year, shared his thoughts about linking corporate mission with philanthropy and community responsibility on Friday morning at the Engage Indiana event, attended by about 375 people and co-hosted by IBJ and the Indiana Economic Development Corp.

He emphasized that while community engagement might not immediately impact a bottom line, it can be beneficial to a company’s ongoing mission. He encouraged for-profit entities of all sizes to do more than the traditional philanthropic acts of giving donations, serving on boards and buying tables at fundraisers.

Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant Lilly is aiming to be an “engaged, collaborative problem solver” rather than providing one-time or isolated support to a cause or organization, Lechleiter said.

For example, Lilly announced last month that it would invest $90 million over the next five years to remove barriers to treatment for diabetes, cancer and tuberculosis in places like Brazil, India and Kenya. The “Lilly 30x30” initiative has a goal to reach 30 million people annually by 2030, which would represent about a six-fold increase in the number of individuals the company reaches every year, outside of its traditional businesses.

“In a nutshell, we will not only improve the human condition, but we will also learn how to run our business better,” Lechleiter said.

On a local level, Lechleiter talked about Lilly’s involvement with expanding access to pre-kindergarten education. He said that because the 140-year-old company is dedicated to operating in central Indiana, it needs to ensure Indianapolis has a strong pipeline of talented workers.

“The absence of high-quality, early-childhood education has been shown to hold back the academic potential of students later on in school and therefore to weaken the supply of talent ready for demanding jobs down the road,” Lechleiter said.

In 2014, Lilly provided $2 million for then-Mayor Greg Ballard’s $50 million program to expand early education to disadvantaged children. Lilly, along with the United Way of Central Indiana, also pledged to raise $20 million from other local businesses and philanthropic sources. In addition, its involvement helped break political gridlock on the City-County Council between supporters and opponents of Ballard's plan.

“I hope that my examples bring home that it’s not only possible, but actually quite natural to align your business interests and even your bottom line with the goals of community engagement,” Lechleiter said.

In addition to panel discussions about how companies can engage their employees in corporate responsibility efforts, the Engage Indiana event also honored Bill Taft as the winner of IBJ's annual Michael A. Carroll Award. Currently the Indianapolis executive director for Local initiatives Support Corp., Taft has spent a quarter century working to help revitalize the city's urban neighborhoods.

The Michael A. Carroll Award is given annually to a man or woman who has demonstrated the former deputy mayor’s qualities of determination, humility and service. Carroll was among six people killed when two small planes collided over southern Marion County on Sept. 11, 1992.

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