As we approach September 2015 when world leaders will adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to guide the post-2015 Development Agenda, questions of how and who will implement them are increasingly dominating discussions. It is clear that achieving the SDGs will require assets and action from a variety of actors across the private, public, and non-profit sectors. The development of the SDGs is a step in the right direction: the process has been inclusive, consulting all stakeholders including business. In this sense, the SDGs represent a new social compact in which private sector, civil society, and governments each have a role to play.
For companies exploring ways to simultaneously create business and social value, the SDGs are an opportunity. Once finalized, the 17 goals and 169 targets will provide a menu from which companies can identify the social issues key to their business, and a common platform for strong multi-stakeholder partnerships to create the systemic change required to overcome what are inherently complex social challenges.
Building on this momentum, FSG’s Shared Value Initiative and the UN Foundation brought together 45 corporate and civil society leaders at this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. (See a list of participants below.) The conversation, led by FSG’s Managing Director Marc Pfitzer, drew on the experiences around the room to explore how multi-stakeholder partnerships can be optimized to create shared value and help achieve the SDGs. We discussed the post-2015 policy context, shared lessons learned from building coalitions to address systemic challenges ranging from diabetes and malaria, to sustainable agriculture and youth employment, and reflected on what needs to be done differently by organizations in how they engage internally and externally to build such partnerships. In particular, we discussed what companies can do to strengthen their actions in multi-stakeholder partnerships that have the potential to create sustainable impact at scale. As Ambassador Macharia Kamau, Permanent Representative of Kenya to the UN, said in his opening remarks: “There is money to be made, profit to be had, and good to be done.”
Five key recommendations for companies emerged during the conversation:
- Identify the problem. Successful multi-stakeholder partnerships are built on a common understanding of the problem they aim to solve. The SDGs are a useful tool to help identify the social issues that matter to a particular company. Having defined the basic need, companies can then analyze the system to understand the underlying challenges to address and actors that need to be involved in order to effect change. Reflecting on Novo Nordisk’s work across sectors to improve access to diabetes care, Ole Kjerkegaard Nielsen, the company’s programme director for corporate sustainability, emphasized the importance of doing such diagnostics work upfront: “It’s like driving a car with multiple handbrakes. If you want to change diabetes in a county, you have to identify which of the maybe 6 or 7 handbrakes need to be released in order to get the car started.”
- Co-create solutions. We are increasingly seeing the line between business and the non-profit sector blur as businesses invest in social good and NGOs develop sophisticated business models. As Steve Davis, CEO of PATH noted, “understanding and capitalizing on the opportunity presented by this blurred line will help us deliver on the aims of the SDGs.” Having identified the problem and relevant partners from the private, public, and non-profit sectors, corporations can build on this convergence in language, mission and actions. Co-creating means aligning around a common agenda and building approaches that draw on the respective strengths of each partner to pull the levers and address the identified need.
- Embrace non-competitive collaboration. Companies operating in the same industry and/or location often face the same complex and systemic challenges. Tackling these challenges together in multi-stakeholder arrangements, rather than in silos, presents an opportunity to achieve impact at scale. The challenges stretch far beyond the realm of what is possible for one company to achieve on its own, and as Christian Spano, Global Lead for Socio-Economic Development at Anglo American, pointed out, trying to gain a competitive edge by attempting to ‘go it alone’ is misplaced in this context: “We shouldn’t compete on our social license to operate; problems are systemic and affect all. It is how you implement as a business that allows you to differentiate.” Companies should consider partnering with competitors to address common challenges in areas such as agricultural supply chain / cluster development and enterprise development / local procurement that are integral to their business operations.
- Build corporate commitment. Lines are also blurring within companies as the opportunity to create shared value brings business and corporate responsibility units together. In addition to promoting internal collaboration, companies should create the right incentive mechanisms; foster long-term commitment and a comfort with uncertainty and experimentation; and develop leadership to support effective corporate engagement in multi-stakeholder partnerships. Champions within the company can act as catalysts of change, supporting this internal process of cultural alignment. Thomas Osburg, Director Europe, Corporate Affairs & Innovation at Intel noted that: “In reality, it is sometimes very personal – in addition to great coalitions between lots of stakeholders, you often have one or two people in each organization standing behind these programs and driving progress.”
- Invest in institutional capacity. The most successful multi-stakeholder partnerships invest in building a support infrastructure or “backbone” that coordinates the activities of the different partners, ensures these activities are mutually reinforcing and driving towards a common goal, and facilitates communication throughout the process. This requires funders to think long-term and invest accordingly. As Jamie McAuliffe, President and CEO of Education for Employment highlighted: “Funders and investors should think beyond short-term project funding cycles and consider investing in the institutional capacity of their social change partners to effect meaningful, lasting impact”. It is only by investing sufficiently in the right support infrastructure that multi-stakeholder partnerships will be able to create systemic and lasting change.
The roundtable at Davos was a great conversation and highlighted a number of lessons from similar experiences across a range of organizations, but also raised a number of questions that will need to be addressed going forward. How do we, for example, best align multi-stakeholder initiatives with broader national agendas or action plans? What should be the role of governments in bringing actors together? How can we more effectively engage bilateral and multilateral donors who traditionally have more of a sector-specific view? And, of course, the big question: How do we build the capacity and infrastructure both within organizations and in the system to really deliver on the post-2015 Development Agenda?
We will continue to explore these issues through our work – please share your thoughts and join the conversation!