How do we overcome silos to build far more holistic and transformational partnerships that can span across the social, environmental, and economic divide?
by Darian Stibbe, Emma Darroch and Hina West
The launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) heralded a new era in approaches to business sustainability and international development. The core of the SDGs is the deep interconnection of economic, social and environmental issues thus a new approach to partnering is imperative.
Darian Stibbe, Executive Director of The Partnering Initiative, has been following the response to the new SDG paradigm, “Despite the clear imperative to work holistically, organisations struggle to do it in practice. We’re generally so focussed on our own piece of the puzzle, we find it challenging to think more widely and adapt our jigsaw piece to ensure it fits into the bigger overall picture. In many ways, we’re still using a 20th-century mindset and toolbox to deliver on 21st-century problems.”
No single issue can be solved in isolation, and genuine transformation can only be made by advancing these entwined aspects together. You can’t tackle malnutrition without looking at agriculture, food manufacturing, public health systems and education. You can’t save a rainforest from destruction unless you have a strong rule of law to prevent malfeasance by irresponsible companies or are in a position to find alternative livelihoods for those who are dependent on unsustainable use of the rainforest for their survival.
We need to explore next-generation partnering: breaking down the silos not only between business and traditional development actors, but also across both development issues and business areas to collectively deliver far more holistic and transformational solutions. Especially as the traditional partnership sector roles are blurring and converging through the rise of purpose-led business and the emergence of the fourth sector. We must look at the barriers and success factors for this kind of approach and ask the question: How can we wholesale shift business, NGO, UN and donors to make such practice the new normal?
|“We’re generally so focussed on our own piece of the puzzle, we find it challenging to think more widely and adapt our jigsaw piece to ensure it fits into the bigger overall picture.” – Darian Stibbe, TPI Executive Director|
However there is no doubt that breaking down the barriers and collaborating with traditional adversaries to together tackle head- on some of the negative impacts of commercial operations will come with a new set of challenges.
“When can your greatest critic become your greatest collaborator?” asks Hina West, Head of Partnerships at WWF. “At WWF, we’ve come to appreciate that simply shouting at a distance at environmentally poorly-performing companies rarely results in real change. That’s not to say that advocacy isn’t important – indeed, in many cases, it’s essential to create sufficient incentive for change. But at some point, if we are to influence a company to adopt new, effective practices, the shouting has to stop, and we need to move from critic to constructive collaborator.”
While the logic may be sound, implementing partnerships between traditional adversaries is challenging and often quite risky for both sides. Is it possible for a company wanting to do the ‘right thing’ while under huge commercial pressure to really convince board members to invite in an NGO? Businesses ultimately face the potential risk of not only exposing inner workings and issues, but that confidential information could be used adversely against them.
|“At WWF, we’ve come to appreciate that simply shouting at a distance at environmentally poorly-performing companies rarely results in real change. That’s not to say that advocacy isn’t important – indeed, in many cases, it’s essential to create sufficient incentive for change…” – Hina West, Head of Partnerships at WWF|
Similarly, is it possible for an NGO to really partner with a company whose operations they have criticised for years, without opening themselves up to allegations of selling their integrity and risk their support base turning against them? It is intrinsic for NGO’s to ensure they are consistent in upholding their vales and effectively evaluate a risk to brand reputation.
Whilst increased collaboration through multiple actors working together is more complex, it can bring a whole host of positive unintended consequences which add value and unlock new opportunities for all. Only through championing this new approach will we be able to adopt more a systems thinking approach in working towards driving as much impact as possible. The time is now for businesses, governments and NGOs to adopt a multifocal view and address issues which may be outside of the natural focus of their mission in order to collectively deliver far more holistic and transformational solutions.
Darian Stibbe, Executive Director, TPI
Emma Darroch, Partnership Executive, WWF UK
Hina West, Head of Partnerships, WWF UK