Sustainable Development becomes Bigger Business for Big Business

A significant trend in the corporate world is the mainstreaming of sustainable development concerns into their efforts to become more responsive corporate citizens. Many companies have upgraded their CSR programs, making them more substantial and tied more deeply into their business models.

As part of this process, businesses are exploring ways to create more effective partnerships with NGOs, governments and even with their corporate competitors to have significant impact. Indeed, many are looking for ways to support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015.

Rain Barrel Director Paul Hoeffel and Rain Barrel Senior Advisor Barry Koch

Rain Barrel Communications was invited to participate in the 6th Responsible Business Summit, organized by the Ethical Corporation (March 26-27, New York City).

Rain Barrel Director Paul Hoeffel moderated a workshop on partnerships and Rain Barrel Senior Advisor Barry Koch presented during the session. Barry had created The Cartoon Movement, Cartoon Network Latin America’s CSR program, with Rain Barrel’s rights-based support.

The meeting brought together over 200 businesses, foundations, consulting groups and civil society organizations to share their experiences integrating sustainable development into their work. After hearing presentations from IBM, the Tent Foundation, Timberland and Barry about their partnering experiences, the workshop participants consulted among themselves.

Takeaways from Breakout Sessions on Partnerships

Forty participants touched on some best practices and the challenges for private sector/NGO partnerships. Panelists provided this feedback:

Colleen Vien, Director of Sustainability, Timberland

  • Regarding the critical ingredients for successful partnerships, the group agreed that the most successful initiatives are those that are more than simply a CSR cost but rather are structured in a way that brings shared value to the business.
  • Buy-in from the top with internal champions is critical.  When companies are assessing potential civil society organizations to partner with, there is no one right way of determining which to choose.  Many variables play in to that decision; large organizations that require little hands-on involvement vs. smaller non-profits that are just getting started.
  • One might require a low touch and may (?) provide results quickly, while the other would require patience, more involvement, and acceptance that there’s risk in working with an unproven partner.
  • It can be very rewarding to help a new non-profit get going if you’re willing to invest the time.  Timberland values the added impact of being such a catalyst.
  • NGO participants wanted to know the best point of contact at multi-national companies for proposing partnerships.  The group agreed that this would depend on the particular topic of the initiative. If it related to human rights in supply chain, for example, the best person would be the organization’s sourcing team.
  • A clear business case needs to be made for getting the attention of sourcing managers.
  • Pre-competitive collaborations and co-investing in initiatives with others within your industry can move funding along faster and lead to systems-based changes. Such cooperation faces the challenge of navigating multiple goals/objectives/expectations which can sometimes lead to slower activation.

Barry Koch, Senior Advisor, Rain Barrel Communications

  • Important to have transparent communication and understand motivations for the partnership.
  • Need to avoid/uncover hidden agendas and avoid whitewashing.
  • While cooperation between NGOs in the same space is possible, recognize that competition between them may exist as well.
  • Efficiencies can sometimes be realized by harnessing multiple organizations with similar missions, performing similar functions, into working consortiums.   The organization, Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance was given as an example.
  • Regarding partnering with centralized vs. decentralized organizations, it was recognized in either scenario, local buy-in and empowerment is essential for achieving positive results.
  • To the degree that for-profit businesses and corporations are interested in pro-social activities, successful programs have senior management support and typically are closely aligned to business objectives.  NGOs and corporations have very different missions, speak different languages and are motivated differently.

Gina Tesla, Director of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Programs, IBM

  • Organizations need to avoid “analysis paralysis”.
  • Coalitions can be very helpful for addressing broader sustainability issues.
  • It’s important to understand your organization’s core capabilities in order to assess the gaps and seek partnerships to fill them in.
  • Having the support of the CEO for sustainability major focus areas is key.
  • Not all relationships have to result in marriage! Partnerships can also be short term and that’s OK.
  • Communication, communication, communication is key to building strong partnerships.
  • Strong relationships among partners are key to foster trust and open communication.

Scarlet Cronin, Director Private Sector Partnerships, Tent Foundation

  • When NGOs approach companies to develop a multi-year partnership that goes beyond a traditional funding ask, NGOs should consider the business case for that particular company to engage with them. How does a company’s core priorities relate to the NGOs programs?
  • Engage the communications teams at respective organizations in the partnership to amplify the partnership and its results; tell a cohesive story.
  • Discuss expectations up front and establish roles/divisions of labor.
  • There is more than one way to build a coalition, including inviting as many companies to the table up front to address a common challenge, or starting with a few key industry representatives and then approaching their peers to join.
  • Some best practices for coalitions:
    • Set common goals and objectives
    • Define principles/criteria
    • Identify benchmarks and timelines
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