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Bill Novelli Says, “Talk, Fight and Win Today’s Tough Challenges”

Bill Novelli

Bill Novelli Says, “Talk, Fight and Win Today’s Tough Challenges” is INSIDE CHARITY’s overview of Novelli’s book Good Business: The Talk, Fight, Win Way to Change the World. Novelli is a former CEO of AARP.

I’ve spent half my long career in the business world and half in nonprofits, with a short stint in government. It’s clear that today’s enormous social and environmental challenges are far too big and too tough to be solved by any one sector of society. My mantra is that “problems worthy of attack prove their worth by attacking back.” I’m talking about climate change, the COVID 19 pandemic, socio-economic inequity, south to north migration, growing debt and deficit and many more.
The sector that has traditionally been oriented toward social change and social impact is civil society: nonprofits working to make a positive difference in our country and the world. In my days at CARE, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, AARP and now Georgetown University, and serving on the boards of the American Cancer Society, Research!America, the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care and many other nonprofits, I’ve learned firsthand how committed and dedicated these organizations are.

Bill Novelli Says, “Talk, Fight and Win Today’s Tough Challenges”

But commitment and dedication are not enough to carry the day. Not only must the private sector, government and civil society work together, we need to break down the barriers that keep us apart. Endless combat is almost never going to work. We need everyone at the table, whether we agree with each other or not. We often hear public advocates refer to corporations as enemies that can’t be trusted to do the right thing. And companies in turn may refer to nonprofits advocating for social change as unrealistic “tree huggers” and “job killers.” But we need to tell ourselves that there are no permanent enemies or opponents, only permanent principles and values. Tuesday’s adversary could be Thursdays’ ally.

The following are examples of how to ‘talk, fight and win to change the world’ from my days working in the private and nonprofit arenas:

Porter Novelli: The first big client we had at Porter Novelli, which my partner, Jack Porter and I co-founded to apply marketing to social and health issues (today called social marketing) was the National High Blood Pressure Education Program. It was overseen by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at NIH. Back then, as today, the pharmaceutical industry was often looked at suspiciously by government and nonprofits alike. But pharmaceutical companies joined the Program, stuck to the guidelines and made major contributions. Why? Because as we educated clinicians and the public about high blood pressure and as treatment increased across the country, the companies sold more product. They and our other players didn’t always see eye to eye, but the partnership worked. It was enlightened self- interest on pharma’s part, and it was a lesson I took to heart.

AARP: Years later, when I was CEO at AARP, we formed a “strange bedfellows” coalition with the Business RoundTable (the CEOs of America’s largest companies), a trade union (Service Employees International Union) and the National Federation of Independent Business, which represented small businesses. We couldn’t agree on much, but we did agree on the pressing need for health insurance to provide access to care for the millions of Americans without it. When we four CEOs of this unholy alliance went to Capitol Hill to lobby, members of Congress and their staffs would say, “You guys can’t even agree on the day of the week.” Maybe so, but we did agree on health insurance and we were an effective partnership.

Tobacco Wars: By far the toughest talk and fight experience I ever had was with the tobacco industry. There is no redeeming social value in marketing cigarettes. but even here, we found common ground, however grudgingly, on FDA authority over tobacco, curbing cigarette marketing that influenced kids and other issues both sides (despite lots of fighting) could agree on. It took many years to achieve, but today smoking is down substantially among adults and children in the U.S. As one of the lead negotiators for the tobacco companies said later, “There came a time in the tobacco wars when the industry, the government and the public health community needed to find a way out of the bitter confrontation.” So we talked and we fought, and the public eventually was the beneficiary.

Based on these experiences here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way:

• Be opportunistic and seize chances when they arise, like today’s awakening to the need to attack social disparities in health and the growing awareness of the critical importance of avoiding the worst consequences of the climate crisis.
• Be aggressive – go on offense. For example, the FDA is working on anti-vaping regulations, but not nearly fast enough. So members of the public health community are pushing the FDA hard for faster action.
• Be political, but not partisan. At AARP I had a plaque on my wall with two quotes that I saw every morning when I came in. The first was by a conservative Senator who said: “AARP is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic party.” The second was by a liberal Congressman who commented: “What does AARP stand for? Always Advocating for the Republican Party.” There you have it; work with and negotiate with both sides to your own advantage.

So no enduring enemies, only permanent principles and values. In my career, I’ve been privileged to help solve major social problems –which is my career goal—by talking and fighting, with all parties at the table. My partners and I sometimes perhaps talked too much, and sometimes maybe fought too much, but more often than not, we won.

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Bill Novelli was born in Bridgeville, PA. He is an executive, public relations professional, author and educator. He is currently Distinguished Professor of the Practice, McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University where he teaches in the MBA program and founded the Georgetown Business for Impact center. Visit https://billnovelli.com to learn more.

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