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How to… build partnerships to change the world


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can only be met if we work together in powerful and innovative ways – across business, civil society and government. But what are the secrets to partnership success?

How to… build partnerships to change the world

Most people agree that partnerships will play a vital role in achieving the SDGs. In fact, partnerships are so important that they are a goal in themselves – SDG 17, 'Partnerships for the Goals'.

And business has a huge opportunity to help in delivering them – for example by drawing on consumer insights, using distribution networks to bring training and resources to the hard-to-reach, or tapping into business strengths such as innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and financial management.

But what do we mean by partnerships in this context? What do successful partnerships involving businesses like ours look like – and how can we build more of them?

Here are seven key elements identified by over 300 guests and expert contributors who took part in a GlobeScan Leadership Forum on the topic that we co-hosted in 2018.

1. Build a shared vision

The first is that to achieve transformational change, we need transformational partnerships. That means bringing together a group of partners who share the same collective, long-term vision, aligned with one or more SDGs – and the passion and drive to accomplish it.

"The challenge of delivery is huge, and the time available relatively tight," says Steve Waygood, Chief Responsible Investment Officer, Aviva Investors. "Passion for a cause sustains us through challenging times and helps individuals be resilient."

2. Face up to the financial challenges

While innovative partnerships are already flourishing around the world, there is no doubt that there are challenges to overcome before they have the collective impact needed to achieve the SDGs.

One of the biggest hurdles is investment. As Tony Burdon, Head of Private Sector Department at DFID points out, "there is an annual finance gap to deliver the SDGs of trillions of dollars, vast sums of money. Public finance is insufficient. Much will have to come from the private sector as part of their business."

The public-private finance model is one area where there is clear scope for pioneering new ways of funding partnerships.

In 2015, for example, Unilever and DFID founded TRANSFORM, an innovation fund which brings private sector creativity and commercial approaches to solve persistent global development challenges. By aiming to enable 100 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia to gain access to products and services that have been shown to improve health, livelihoods, the environment or wellbeing, it addresses a wide range of SDGs.

In 2018 we quadrupled our investment in TRANSFORM to £40 million, which is supporting projects in nine countries.

How to… build partnerships to change the world

3. Make the business case for investment

Building a case for investments like these is complex, as Gerbrand Haverkamp, Executive Director of the Index Initiative, describes: "If we want companies to invest in a way that helps the SDGs, in many cases this will require investing in public goods.

"This does require an investor community that understands that the license to operate for companies in part depends on the degree in which companies give back to society by investing in public goods."

This means making the broader case for long-term value creation – a theme that is developing momentum among investors who are increasingly looking to see profit and purpose being intertwined in businesses. It also means building strong cases for each individual partnership.

4. Find the right partners

Identifying the best partners to work with is essential – but also challenging. By definition, partnerships cross sectors and have different cultures, ways of operating, and approaches to measuring success and delivery.

We believe the best way to bridge these gaps is through constructive discussion. There is scope for improving these relationships, and finding new ones, by identifying how the strengths of each partner can complement each other.

At Unilever, for example, we've recently formed a partnership with GAVI, the vaccine alliance, which pairs GAVI's excellence in delivering essential vaccinations with the expertise gained by our Lifebuoy soap brand in behaviour-change programmes that encourage handwashing. The GAVI partnership is designed to deliver on our shared commitment of reducing the number of preventable deaths in childhood in India.

There are many other examples of successful partnerships delivering impact. Benchmarking systems and forums for sharing information about partners are under development could provide welcome support in the future.

5. Build trust

Partnerships rely on trust – but trust has to be earned, and this can be an issue between sectors.

As Shamina Singh, President, Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth has observed: "Historically there has been a bright line between civil society (those who do good) and private sector (typically seen as only interested in making money). We have to get beyond the ‘us vs them’ mentality – and come together over common objectives."

Transparency, openness and accountability are the obvious foundations of trust between partners – and a good track record will build trust over time.

How to… build partnerships to change the world

6. Stay focused on effective delivery

Like any initiative, a partnership depends on effective execution to succeed: which means defined roles, strong project management and impact measurement.

When we talk to our partners and other stakeholders, we often hear that this is about having the right people in place. That means building capabilities among all the organisations involved in a partnership – and cultivating a shared, results-driven mindset.

As Gail Gallie, Founder and CEO of Project Everyone observes: "collaborations often falter due to lack of dedicated project management to focus on delivering... We need obsessive, dedicated Goal project managers to drive these collaborations through!"

Staying business-like is key, says Rebecca Marmot, Global Vice President Sustainability, Advocacy & Partnerships, Unilever. "Apart from emergency situations, when we're dealing with an immediate need on the ground, it is vital to build in the same structure of KPIs and deliverables for a partnership as we would for any commercial activity.

"That rigour is particularly important when you're answering to external funders."

7. Measure your impact

Measuring and tracking the impact a partnership has is crucial for attracting and retaining funding – it supports the ongoing business case.

But this can be a challenge in a number of ways. The sheer range of social, environmental and economic impacts involved in a transformational partnership can be difficult to measure. Social enterprises and non-profits can also find traditional impact measurement too costly.

There is a wide range of frameworks, alliances and organisations actively working on standardised methods for measuring or reporting progress against the SDGs – a development we welcome.

Banner image taken by Ender Balci, Mechanical Maintenance Engineer, Unilever Turkey

Second photo taken by Febyuka Azalia, Resourcing Assistant – Customer Development, Unilever Indonesia

Third photo taken by Madhura Dharmarathne, Demand Planning Manager – Home care and Foods & Refreshment, Unilever Sri Lanka

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