2020 Vision

sunrise may 12
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

polman
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.

 

My Top Cross-Sector Partnership Tips

cusa pic
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.

Partnering for Good

CC header
Click here http://www.coracleconsulting.net to check out my new partnering venture!

I’m fast approaching 9 years living in Saigon, and the welcoming in of the latest lunar New Year celebrations (the “White Metal Rat” no less) with all the usual anticipation of things to come, has coincided with a flurry of global and personal chapter headings…

Only this weekend I read about the terror attacks in my old London neighbourhood, Streatham Hill, have mourned the initial days of Brexit slipping into reality, genned up on Coronavirus (as my daughters’ schools close for the week as a precaution) and am stomaching the prospect of a future Trump administration, post 2020 election, following the collapse of his impeachment and the latest news from the Iowa caucus this morning.

In home news, Issy and I married 4 weeks ago in Sri Lanka, and this week I am soft launching a new business idea to improve the quality of partnership work that co-exists inside and between the worlds of Non-Profits and Business.

Under Coracle Consulting, I’ll be facilitating training and coaching for those organisations keen to join forces with others to address different social and environmental issues.

So, why should organisations choose to Partner in the first place?

For the many years that I was lucky enough to experience the highs and lows of cross-sector “collaborations,” poverty alleviating “partnerships” and multi-sector “platforms” I never lost sight of the importance of experimenting with the idea that partnering with others can reap rewards.

I saw these rewards not only for those doing the partnering, and those positively impacted by the outcomes of good partnering, but also from the perspective of growing an overall learning about how different approaches to partnering can offer up new solutions fit to tackle many of our existential, societal flaws.

Countless partnership case studies exist (featured on these pages too) that highlight positive practice, and many teaching aids are available (TPI’s Partnering Toolbook, or The Partnership Brokers Association for example) to help guide practitioners.

Over the years, I’ve spoken at various conferences in Asia about partnering, and have supported the work of organisations such as Business Fights Poverty and Elevate (a CSR Asia company) in moving the dial on this topic – in particular, the nexus where international NGOs and large corporations join forces, and together seek to make sizable social, environmental and economic gains.

Overall, it seems to me that there is a significantly long way to go down the partnership road before systematic standards, principles and ways of working come naturally to the many millions of public, private and non-profit entities out there who want to “make a difference”.

What I hope to do in 2020 – global fluctuations in politics and personal milestones aside – can be summed up by these two goals:

  1. To raise awareness about, and demonstrate why, there huge potential exists when organisations invest in partnerships; and
  2. To offer up my time and experiences to support organisations in their respective pursuit of finding the right partner in their eco-system, and then turning their ideas and innovations into important and scalable solutions for as many people, communities and societies as they can.

I’d love to hear from anyone on this topic, and will always find the time to discuss ideas and suggestions for how large scale improvements and enhancements can be made to partnering.

Do get in touch, either in the comments section here or over on the Coracle pages: http://www.coracleconsulting.net

Thanks for reading and have a great Year of the Rat!

Focus, collaboration and proof of concept: notes from a Singapore Round Table

Image result for sdgs"And so to Singapore last week, and joining a group of corporations at a “Round Table” event convened by Business Fights Poverty and Elevate.

This was the third in a series of formal discussions that the UK Department for International Development (DFID) had instigated, to support the scale up of new initiatives for responsible business practice.

The basis for our dialogue in Singapore was straight forward enough: what can DFID, and other government donor agencies, do to stimulate and enhance the implementation and impact of responsible business practice, as part of the collective efforts underway to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs – listed above)?    Continue reading “Focus, collaboration and proof of concept: notes from a Singapore Round Table”

Economic Resilience: Lessons from a workshop in Kenya

market3
Local market in Westlands, Nairobi

Every day, we each make decisions about money. Weighing up hundreds of transaction options in a single week, our choices are based on quality, value, needs and desires. To do this, we require information and knowledge, and ultimately we crave the security of knowing that we can afford to buy things.

Cryptic introductions aside, this post is inspired by an illuminating week overseas with new people, and offers up some jet-lagged musings about money and about equity.

Last week I was in Nairobi, with colleagues from Save the Children who’d gathered to share their experiences on the topic of “Economic Resilience”.

In a game of ‘Non-Governmental Organisation [NGO]’ Bingo, now would be the time to mark a cross in your first box: Economic Resilience, what a buzz-word (or “fuzz-word” as someone in Nairobi suggested) indeed.

There were 14 country teams in attendance last week, each armed with definitions, approaches, ideas and stories to tell about their respective efforts at delivering projects with local communities that increase people’s Economic Resilience.    Continue reading “Economic Resilience: Lessons from a workshop in Kenya”

Can we really take big business seriously when it comes to the SDGs?

img_4461-1

Gaza, May 2017 – https://definitelymaybe.me/2018/05/11/money-is-power/

It was during a Business in the Community event in the summer of 2006 that I first met Carol Monoyios, CARE UK’s Marketing Director, and responsible (in part, at least) for the fact that I spent the next 13 years working for CARE International.

Carol and the organization’s then Programme Director, Raja Jarrah, had hatched a plan and it was to be my fate, attending that July event, to end up playing the role of their main protagonist.

Their plan was, and remains, a simple one: create a multi-functional team inside of CARE to work with businesses and markets in a new and more impactful way.

What various colleagues across CARE’s system had determined, the year before at a conference in Nairobi, was that there were many ways to work with business and markets, with the purpose of supporting CARE’s mission of empowering women and girls, but these were not being centrally coordinated very well.

Inside of the NGO sector at that time, most agencies who took money from business were using this largely as a means to fund projects. A separate department would then typically manage the organisation’s “market development” programmes – the result being that these two functions were not collaborating.      Continue reading “Can we really take big business seriously when it comes to the SDGs?”

“Scale, impact and partnerships” – seeing through the buzz factor

conference
Cartoon credit – http://www.stillwaterhistorians.com

I’m back on the regional conference circuit at the moment, and it’s awash with talk about “scale” and “impact”.

Sound-bite central, indeed, with events I’ve attended recently also still obsessing with how to achieve scale and impact by working in “partnerships”. As suggested in my last post we need to look beyond semantics in the sustainability arena, and instead get real about what some of these terms actually mean as, all too often, our preoccupation with the vernacular distracts us from action.

The UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have included “global partnerships” as their 17th Goal. The proof of authenticity around what the UN thinks can be achieved with this Goal will be revealed over time. However, right now, it seems to me that if you are not talking about “scaling your programmes”, or “measuring the impact” of your efforts (in terms of playing a positive role in society) then you are not “on message” – and that, for many, is a public relations cardinal sin.      Continue reading ““Scale, impact and partnerships” – seeing through the buzz factor”