2020 Vision

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Sun up, Saigon, 12 May 2020.

Thanks to technology, we have all kinds of information at the click of a button. Whilst huge numbers of population groups can’t access the internet, not long from now everyone will be connected in some shape or form.

Technology is helping us make better sense of our impacts on the environment, and how to resolve the negative aspects of these. Technology has enabled block chain systems to evolve, challenging how existing global market transactions work, and providing alternative methods for citizens to cast votes in elections. Technology is enhancing the way we communicate with each other, how we forge and maintain relationships, both professional and personal.

I’ve been working with The Partnering Initiative (TPI) recently and we’re seeing how technology can also be a positive vehicle for partnership work. In particular, between organisations seeking to solve societal issues, such as poverty, injustice and now, during such comprehensively macabre times, a health pandemic.

The current implications of Covid-19 are reverberating through every country of the world. We rely on technology to support our response to this virus, as well as to develop its vaccine.

However, there is one damning chasm that technology has failed to fill in: inequality.

American author, William Gibson, once said: “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”. 

Inequality, on a global scale, rages on.

Recently, the stark extent to which our planet’s wealth is unevenly distributed has been shared wider and wider.

Oxfam’s Inequality Campaign helps put the data into perspective – 1% of the world’s population own more than the rest combined. Other agencies have provided tools to help us determine how our own wealth fares, when compared to global median levels. If you are curious about your ranking, then The Giving What We Can platform calculates this for you here: How Rich Are You?

Covid-19 has exposed the pervasive extent to which social inequalities direct so much of what and how societies function.

Capitalist market-based models and patriarchal and cultural norms clearly also contribute heavily. Too many men in positions of power. Too many assumed entitlements, personified daily by too many people used to getting what they want, when they want it.

Which is, of course, where the remedial qualities of partnership working can play a critical role.

As TPI and others have experienced, on the topic of partnership working, it is not sustainable to broker a meaningful partnership with another organization if both parties refuse to embrace new methods, new approaches and new behaviours. Partnerships also won’t sustain if individuals don’t cede elements of control and influence to which they might intuitively feel they are entitled.

Instead, long-term, impactful partnerships will only succeed in their objectives if any aspects of inequality within them are not re-balanced.

Covid-19 should be seen as an overdue warning shot across a country’s bows, but specifically the world’s wealthiest ones.

The US and the UK are floundering with their responses to the pandemic. Caught up in political points scoring, unwilling to learn from the experiences of other nations, blinkered in their pursuit of populist messages.

There was a time when these countries took pride in their international development investments, a time when being a “global citizen” was worn as a badge of some honour by political ambassadors.

A time when signing up to the doctrine of partnership, that the Sustainable Development Goals got close to evangelizing (as part of the United Nation’s second round of fifteen year commitments to the world’s most marginalized and vulnerable citizens) was taken ‘as a given’.

These times have changed. Those sentiments shelved.

And, one scenario perhaps, is that we won’t now see a return to that previous status quo. It’s plausible that the seismic nature of the shifts caused by Covid-19 are too severe to be fully repairable.

Gibson’s statement asks us to consider if our new normal will see more people living comfortably with wealth, or more people living uncomfortably with poverty?

Will our human condition – when so flagrantly put under the microscope and tested, as it could be argued is happening in 2020 – regenerate more altruistically as a result of Covid-19? Or, will the opposite scenario unfold, and a more self-centered and individualistic norm rise from the ashes of the pandemic?

That partnerships can solve complex social and environmental challenges is undisputed.

But partnerships, we also know concretely, won’t survive long, if those leading them choose not to believe in the power of the many, and in the spectacular innovation that comes from collaboration.

To hope for a future where collective action and shared goals are espoused by all (by organisations who traditionally function to benefit only their shareholders, or by governments who only crave election votes) is, of course, a version of a utopia state. And that hope itself carries with it many complications and flaws.

And yet, no amount of technological advances will ever truly make a difference in the pursuit of a more just and equal society.

Real change only ever comes from hearts and minds. Not from algorithms.

Covid-19 requires us to put partnerships front and centre

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Paul Polman and Peter Tufano

Yesterday, in an interview with Peter Tufano from Saïd Business School Paul Polman concluded that covid-19 had “shown the gaps that exist in our society”, and that a “global crisis like this requires a global response”.

Polman, who stood down from running Unilever at the end of 2018, is a seasoned businessman when it comes to discussing sustainability issues. Under his leadership, Unilever helped lead the charge, on behalf of large corporations, in defining why pursuing a “shared value” agenda (coined as such by Porter and Kramer in the Harvard Business Review almost a decade ago) might end up being more than just a newfangled public relations exercise.

From designing a unique global sustainability charter (The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan) for their business operations, and investing in their own accountability frameworks and evaluation metrics for this, through to chairing the private sector group who influenced the UN’s shaping of the current Sustainable Development Goals, Unilever’s ten year sustainability trajectory under Polman paved the way for many other industries.

Way before this last particular decade, many of Unilever’s brands had more than dabbled in the “CSR” space. One of the first tie-ups I learnt about, when I joined CARE International in 2006, were the hand-washing initiatives led by Dove soap in south Asia, and which engaged local CARE teams in finding innovative ways to distribute health messages to rural communities.

It was clear to me, during my initial years with CARE in London, that Unilever had an omnipresent feel about it as a company, in terms of its presence on the sustainability scene.

When I joined the WSUP management team in 2008 for CARE, Unilever were one of the most active private sector partners, determined to prove that the answer to global water-sanitation issues lay in the collaboration between government, private sector and civil society working together.

And then, by 2010, CARE had launched JITA, a rural sales programme in Bangladesh that relied on everyday products being sold by local tradeswomen. No surprise, then, that Unilever had pioneered the earlier pilots to JITA, adapting certain products for harder to reach communities (also no surprise that it was Professor Linda Scott from Saïd Business School who championed a significant investment in measuring the impacts of JITA’s work).

Indeed, in the arena of the emerging partnerships and collaborations, which I saw take shape during those years, Unilever were front-runners.

Moving to Vietnam in 2011, I spent more time in the Asia-Pacific sustainability arena, only to find a similar dynamic out here, with Unilever once more driving the debates and popping up at conferences and seminars to lead the examples of good practice, particularly when it came to partnerships and sustainability.

So, in many ways, Polman’s insights yesterday fell well in line with what I would expect him to say about the current covid-19 pandemic.

Words are easy – real and sustained action tends not to be so.

The tension with putting words into action is not a new phenomenon. I’d be the first to challenge a lot of the work that companies put out there under a sustainability banner. To me, we’ve a long way to go on the topic of forging genuinely meaningful and long lasting partnerships between different organisations and especially when it comes to multi-national companies.

It seems to me, though, that covid-19 has somewhat re-written the script, not just for how businesses might engage in societal and environmental issues, but how every organisation engages.

Every conversation that anyone in the world is having today is in some way influenced by covid-19. It has changed everything. Forget starting any new chapter headings, we all need to learn a new language to read this particular book.

And that is, perhaps, why I found Polmans’ words so inspiring.

Already, covid-19 and the new realities it has brought upon society, simply must now be a catalyst for changing the way organisations work together. Somehow, before old habits and models and behaviours are allowed to creep back in, we must foster long-term commitments by government, private sector, and civil society to actually be the global “responders” that Polman is insisting are required.

In the interview, Polman cites some immediately comforting examples of where health, tech, pharmaceutical, and manufacturing sectors have collaborated together to address the pandemic. The world is rising to certain aspects of the challenge it faces.

Many commentators have been quick, also, to recognise the very positive way in which these recent months can help shape a healthier society in the future. One where larger numbers of people make choices not geared towards satisfying their own desires or needs.

Also in the mix, as the realities for the world’s poorest and most marginalised population groups come sharper into focus, is a greater awareness about the extent to which covid-19 will almost certainly end up further increasing the world’s inequalities – inequalities that have for so many years exacerbated the vulnerabilities of those living with very little prosperity and facing constant injustices.

As Polman mentioned yesterday, every year 8 million people die because of cigarettes, and 7-8 million because of air pollution. That the fatalities for which covid will be responsible won’t reach such numbers, further highlights perhaps the complacency that exists about the sales of tobacco and the number of regulatory controls that effect air quality.

I listened earlier in the week to someone on the radio talking about the many millions of people the world over who, for reasons of old age or disability, have been self-isolated from society their whole lives. That radical re-thinking about the digital and virtual nature of providing services and products – be they educational or health related, or other – is now well underway because of covid-19 is both exciting and deeply revealing.

Does this mean covid-19 embodies some type of perfect humanitarian storm of circumstances, out of which new alliances, partnerships and cross-sector collaborations will be forged? Did the world need the “re-boot” that I’ve read some people describe the current circumstances as?

Time will tell.

To quote Polman from the start, this crisis like none other before it, is “showing our society’s gaps” – for everyone to see. Acknowledging these gaps is one thing. Finding the right, long term solutions to them is another.

Polman indefatigably believes that the right type of solutions will only be found if the world works together.

And, at this point in time, I can only whole-heartedly agree.

 

Tell-tale signs your Partnership is heading in the wrong direction

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My apologies upfront if you arrived at this post under the impression it would offer up relationship advice. Instead, I’m here to discuss the increasingly common pursuit of Cross-Sector (in particular, business and non-profit) Partnerships, and where they often run into trouble.

In many ways, looking closer at what makes for a successful individual relationship (be it with your manager, your partner or anyone else for that matter) is no bad place to start when it comes to establishing what it takes to maintain decent Cross-Sector Partnerships.

As explored in last month’s post there are some fairly stock conditions and behaviours that characterise good partnering – suitable preparation, clear communications, mutually beneficial goals, openness, honesty and regular evaluation, being just a handful of examples.

Let’s assume, then, that doing the opposite to any of these conditions is immediately going to put your partnership into more perilous scenarios. None of these conditions on their own are necessarily deal-breakers or deal-makers. But, combined, they will provide a robust framework from which to explore and experiment.

So, given an understanding of the types of conditions which are optimal for partnering, what might be some of the more subtle tell-tale signs that your partnership is, in fact, headed for the rocks? Here are some to contemplate:

#1 Early onset Complacency Syndrome.

Each partnership between a business and a non-profit (let’s stick with these two types of organisation, although the rules are relevant for other sector combinations) has it’s own unique context. If we assume that both organisations have done their research upfront, are partnering towards a shared goal, and have made initial investments of resources into the partnership, it doesn’t then always follow that the rest of their partnering experience will unfold as planned.

A symptom to look out for, that can often be traced right back to the early stages, is that of complacency. In my experience, particularly where funding is involved, complacency can occur on both sides.

On the side of the business partner (typically funding the non-profit in some way) there can be an instinctive sense of entitlement. This is, perhaps, unavoidable but still worthy of note. Many relationships that a business manages include those where that business is paying for something. Albeit with an agency or with a supplier, a business and its employees can have a subconscious expectation that they are in the driving seat because it is their money enabling things to happen. If they want a meeting at short notice, or they cancel a meeting at short notice, that isn’t to be taken as disrespectful, because they are the funding entity, so they are allowed to call the shots.

On the side of the non-profit, the side most likely receiving funds, another form of complacency can emerge. Again, this isn’t always the case, but I’ve seen non-profits, who are under pressure for funds, sign “partnership” agreements with corporate donors and, once the ink is dry on the contract, the non-profit moves onto the next funding target.

The over-arching point here comes down to discipline. Whatsoever your reasons for engaging with another entity – in a relationship that you are labeling a “partnership” – it is not good enough, nor sustainable, to take anything for granted. If the fit between two organisations is honest and meaningful then, as with any of the relationships in your life to which you place value, the act of being a complacent partner will hopefully not materialise, nor be accepted.

#2 – Nurturing your Partner’s “Value-Add”.

Let me caveat that “Value-Add” is jargon. An overly-hyped phrase, it flies off the tongue at most Partnership Conferences or workshops these days. However, beneath the jargon lies a revealing symptom.

Companies who partner with non-profits, or with public sector organisations, are increasingly being asked to demonstrate their Value-Add, when it comes to helping address societal issues. A social development organisation seeking to partner with a business is under pressure to do the same. Indeed, worthy Cross-Sector Partners will identify what their Partnership brings, as a combined team. Those in the partnership will articulate what is often referred to as a “Value Proposition” even, and spend weeks and months refining this together.

When done well, taking a systematic approach to Value Addition – in our example, this translates as two organisations clearly spelling out what it is they want to achieve together, how they will be successful, and why their partnership stands out from others – can reap dividends for all involved, and deliver great outcomes for the partnership.

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Are your Partnerships built for learning or do they rely on jargon and platitudes?

However, I’ve seen lip service approaches taken by organisations when it comes to recognising each other’s contributions and, as a result, not then taking steps towards helping evolve and nurture these contributions.

Organisations, particularly large ones, tend to be internally focused, strapped for time, complicated to navigate, and highly political. For those managing partnerships, there is simply not always the requisite amount of bandwidth, in one’s typical day, to spend that critical time learning more about the organisations with whom you are partnering.

This, it seems to me, is a missed opportunity. How might an organisation ever truly partner with another if that learning component is never fulfilled?

To be clear, partnering with another organisation doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with something they are doing (or have done) and it definitely shouldn’t mean you can’t call out bad practice. On the contrary, some of the companies partnering NGOs are seeking that very regular and wholesome critique from the NGOs they partner. Certain companies even evaluate their partnerships based on an NGO’s ability to do just that.

And, yet, the majority of organisations aren’t prepared to invest the time and resources to learn from each other, and learn about each other’s industry.

Which has never made sense to me, given the most rational case for establishing a Cross-Sector Partnership in the first place should be the realisation that your organisation’s goals cannot be achieved unless you work with other entities (and particularly those who bring skills and knowledge to the table that you don’t have).

Without fulfilling a commitment to explore what your differences are, and how you can compliment each other (and, over time, make each other a more rounded and robust outfit) organisations run the risk of simply partnering for partnerships’s sake.

#3 – Owning your Mistakes.

In the realm of Cross-Sector Partnerships there is a narrative shaped around what that partnership is doing (or intends to do) which often relies on a heavy dose of positive public relations. CEOs will pepper a conference speech with crowd pleasing intentions. New brand campaigns are created in the process. Press releases fly about social media. A hashtag is born. And so things escalate.

Behind the scenes, however, Cross-Sector Partnerships are reliant on individual relationships between multiple people. What can happen in the furor of a new Partnership is that individuals become carried away with the compelling narrative, and impermeable to doing wrong. And one thing we know about human relationships is that it’s doesn’t always come naturally to people to accept responsibility for things when they go wrong. This is particularly evident inside the workings of an externally published partnership, high off of its own sense of self-worthiness, and all that it has set out to accomplish.

When things go wrong in a partnership, all too often one side will blame the other (either directly or covertly). It can then be a cumbersome, and ultimately fatal, process continuing the partnership in the wake of an episode where individuals have thrown each other under the proverbial bus.

Much can be done to prevent this from happening (again, the importance of giving due consideration upfront about the nature of a partnership, or then advocating clear ways of working as the partnership progresses, are two such examples). Although the true test lies in people’s commitment to learning and to improving both their own practices and behaviours, as well as that of their respective organisations.

Doing so requires courage, some risk taking and a sharp sense of what it means to do the right thing.

I am sure many examples can be thrown back in my face of situations where organisations did the very opposite of the right thing, burying bad news stories or unethical practice, and lived to tell the tale.

Equally, I have my anecdotes of where my own handling of a sticky situation with a partner organisation was conducted in a way that protected my team from receiving just blame. Regretfully, there are probably more than one of these to recount.

And yet, I am convinced of the fact that Cross-Sector Partnering would be more impactful, with more sustained and productive outcomes, were we to work harder at trusting each other, and owning our mistakes and the times where we might have misjudged a situation. Easier, of course, to say than to live out, but we must try.

So, there you have it.

My three Tell-Tale signs to look out for when embarking on serious Cross-Sector Partnerships, and which apply to you and your partner organisation:

  1. Relationship Complacency;
  2. Not investing in each other’s Value Addition; and
  3. The inability to accept that Everyone Makes Mistakes, from which we can all learn.

Thanks for reading, and happy Partnering!

 

My Top Cross-Sector Partnership Tips

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Getting the best out of your Partnerships: Investing upfront, learning to work differently, and telling your story!

Whether you are a business or a non-profit entity, it will not have escaped your attention that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals prioritised what they refer to as “the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development”. It is their 17th Goal, and it largely focuses around the role that large institutions together play to address social and environmental issues, on such topics as trade, technology (eg population internet access) and remittances.

However, their use of the word “partnership” is taken from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which also coveted the practice. In turn, some of the even earlier commitments, in particular to cross-sector partnering, were coined at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. In the 28 years since that event, the act of organisations partnering together to achieve common goals has become mainstream parlance in the world of sustainability. Which has meant, a lot of the time, the true definition of what it means to partner has become lost in the melee, and the word is bandied about as a “catch-all” phrase and, unfortunately, much of the time used incorrectly.

Keeping abreast of how cross-sector collaborations have evolved over the past 15 years, I have recently launched a consultancy – http://www.coracleconsulting.net – that helps broker cross-sector partnerships, and build the skills required to implement these effectively.

It seems to me that there are some fundamental principles to how a good partnership between different types of organisations can be established, implemented and then (hopefully) scaled and sustained.

Here, then, for those readers interested, is an indicative list of 4 Top Tips that I would suggest can enhance the quality of cross-sector partnerships:

#1 – Upfront investment in appropriate Partnership Resources. On too many occasions I’ve seen organisations launch partnerships together without duly auditing what their respective resource investments were in advance. The types of resources to which I’m referring include: human capital; financial; senior leadership buy-in; R&D; measurement systems; and internal and external communications plans.

In the scenario where a large corporation has decided to form a partnership with an international NGO, I see there to be several “must do” components to this that, if left out, will compromise the outcomes of the partnership. These components would include the following:-

Having an approved a partnership budget; Agreeing to necessary time allocations from team members to staff the actual work; Engaging respective Senior Leadership (and ideally the CEO) in signing off the intentions of the partnership; Giving due thought and budget to conducting research into the partnership objectives and activities; and, finally, paying due consideration to communicating internally and externally about the partnership as it progresses.

Each of these components requires resourcing and needs to be planned upfront, or else the partnership will fall at the first hurdle.

#2 – Learning to cede control of different pieces of the Partnership and to embrace new ways of working. Cross-sector partnering is a two-way affair, on every level. It can be all too easy for companies and non-profits not to appreciate the different organisational norms to which they respectively adhere. “Unlikely bedfellows” was a phrase used to describe the corporate sector, many years ago when I set up a new team inside of an international NGO. My team was responsible for building partnerships with big business and many of my colleagues did not approve of us engaging with companies – many, today, are still not convinced by it either.

Actually making a successful, mutually beneficial partnership between two organisations, who live and breathe very differently, is no mean feat. Success, then, lies in how each might change their habits. For companies, this might be ceding control of full decision making on issues where (with suppliers or agencies, for example) they might usually have the final say. For NGOs, accepting that a long-term collaboration with a corporation will need to support the profit targets of that company, in addition to the social or environmental ones, can be a harder sell to all NGO staff than you’d think.

#3 – The human face of a partnership is crucial, but without the right systems in place, things will unravel. In the sustainability world, whether you are an NGO employee seeking to engage a retail company around ethical sourcing, or a corporate procurement specialist, looking for a local non-profit expert to help with your company’s gender strategy, your personality is often the very first thing that gets you off and running.

An organisation’s human capital is by far one of their biggest assets when it comes to forging and maintaining cross-sector partnerships. That said, it is not uncommon for organisations to make an individual’s roles over-whelming and untenable, by putting them in charge of all the different partnership responsibilities. Too much pressure on one pair of shoulders is not wise.

What many partnering organisations do well, not only to more subtly adjust and improve the quality of their partnerships but also to remove the weight of the burden on their staff, is to set up robust and practical ‘systems’ for partnering. These start with due diligence processes, when choosing a partner, and finish with rigorous surveying of the partnership at different stages. By creating systems that guide organisations on each aspect of partnering, you are signalling that your partnering intentions and commitments are legitimate, and that you are not falling into the trap of partnering for the sake of it.

#4 – Celebrating Partnership successes helps raise the bar for wider industry and Sustainability Goals. With your upfront investments and research completed, your partnering systems set up and your experiences underway (as well as your own organisation slowly responding to some new ways of working because of that) then my last tip is to ensure a space for sharing out your achievements and the organisational learning you’ve gleaned about cross-sector work. Hopefully, by this stage of your partnering – reflecting on the trajectory you and your team have been on – you will be able to log several “wins”.

To be a solid partnering organisation over the long term, will mean conforming to a set of values and behaviours. Typically, these tend to be positive ones. Examples being: being honest and open; being a clear communicator;  seeing perspectives from different sides; taking risks when trying new things; analysing what went wrong; and having an attitude of wanting to improve the nature of one’s partnership. Much like with any relationship, different organisations will find some of these harder than others.

In my opinion, however, one of the missed opportunities with cross-sector partnerships is when organisations don’t share out their ideas and experiences, and aren’t then contributing to consistently increasing the bar of quality on the practice of partnering more generally. There are multiple ways of telling your industry, or your supply chain, or your opposite number at a rival company, your partnering story.

Without these stories, we simply will not evolve the art form of partnering, which will mean our collective sustainability efforts will go to waste.