Over the last several years, models of business / NGO collaboration have begun to shift quite significantly. Five years ago, the relationship between a company and an NGO was most likely to be transactional in nature: a donation or sponsorship from the company or, in the case of a company’s social investment, a fee-for-service arrangement for the NGO to deliver specific outputs.
A transactional approach is the easiest to negotiate and the easiest to deliver on. The terms of the arrangement are clear, and each partner continues to do what they do best, working inside their usual comfort zone. More recently we have seen a shift, with a growing number of businesses and development organisations recognising the need to set their sights higher and approach partnerships differently to unlock greater value for each organisation and greater impact for intended beneficiaries.
The partnership between GSK and Save the Children shows us the real potential of partnerships when two organisations take the decision to move beyond a transactional relationship to a more strategic and transformational form of collaboration that deliberately sets out to combine capabilities, resources and influence over the long-term. The value derived by the two organisations and beneficiaries is clear to see – GSK benefits from Save the Children’s deep on the ground knowledge and experience, while Save the Children benefits from GSK’s product development and R&D capabilities and technical know-how.
Both organisations have invested significant time and energy in understanding each other’s motivations and capabilities and, over time, have established a virtuous circle of ever increasing familiarity and trust that has enabled both organisations to adapt, innovate and deliver impressive results at scale.
This is precisely the approach that the architects of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) want to see more of – in recognition that the major challenges the world faces are inter-connected and all sectors must join up their efforts to ensure sustainable solutions. In other words, we need to stop working in silos and move towards a more strategic, holistic and co-ordinated way of working to achieve truly transformative change at scale – something that is easier said than done.
The scale of GSK and Save the Children’s ambition is impressive: to help save the lives of 1 million children. It shows what can be achieved when two large, albeit diverse, organisations come together around a clear and compelling shared vision. Nevertheless, the model as it currently stands is only scalable through increased financial investment. And unless the company gains scale commensurately with the investment they make, no company can invest indefinitely.
So, with the ambition of the SDGs and the need to find more systemic solutions, can the organisations go beyond the immediate programmatic parameters of the partnership to create even wider impact?
There are clearly opportunities for GSK and Save the Children to continue to increase the impact of their partnership both in their current focal countries and in new countries (although replicating models is often much harder in reality as local operating contexts and needs differ so much). There will also of course be a significant amount of learning that both organisations can apply beyond the partnership as they look to execute similar programmes with other partners, and the wider business and development community can learn and benefit from their experience.
But perhaps the greatest opportunity for maximising impact is to look to integrate and work more collectively with health systems and the relevant actors at the national level. They have the potential to use the critical mass and existing infrastructure of the partnership to encourage all stakeholders with an interest in building community-level primary healthcare to cooperate more strongly towards more collective action that can unleash the greatest value from the resources available.
This is not suggesting some top-down designed and driven “über” partnership of all the players in a health system. Such an approach will always fail: you can’t control the actions of multiple independent actors, even with a large chequebook; and even if you could, linear designed approaches always break down in complex systems. Indeed, a major dilemma for organisations with established partnership programmes wanting to go beyond their parameters is that joining with wider efforts at a more systemic level inevitably leads to greater complexity that slows down action and makes accountability difficult. It is much easier just to get on and do your own thing than to have to work with others.
If we are to achieve the SDGs, what we need to foster is collaborative systems that don’t slow organisations and initiatives from ‘getting on and doing it’, while maximising the opportunity for integration and creating value through more aligned and collective action. This means avoiding trying to set up widespread ‘hard’ ties (formal MoUs, clearly defined partnership with specific goals) which can take forever to develop and can get bogged down in bureaucracy and governance complexity while trying to do everything. Instead, the collaborative system needs to facilitate ‘soft’ ties – ongoing communication, sharing current and future activities and plans, exchanging knowledge and experience etc. – and then support the creation of multiple bi-lateral and multi-party collaborative actions wherever there is sufficient energy and shared specificity of interest (and therefore commitment) from partners and where added value can be created. This supports a much more organic, bottom-up approach, and encourages the most appropriate, workable levels of collaboration – from alignment of activities, through coordination of activities, joint activities, and through to integration.
Ideally governments will lead and set policy priorities and create opportunities and incentives for others to align their resources and capabilities around a guiding ‘north star’ vision or approach – something we flag in our recent report with World Vision: Delivering on the Promise, in which we recommend cross-sector partnership platforms to enable delivery of the SDGs. Where governments lack the capacity to establish such convening platforms, programmes like the GSK and Save the Children partnership need to step up to this collective leadership role, that ultimately will help to drive the system change the SDGs require.