Sara Enright
Dominic Kotas

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21 August 2018
Making Private Sector Collaboration a Driving Force for SDGs: 5 Success Factors
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
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The SDGs can serve as both a stimulus and a framework for helping businesses to align their sustainability investments with each other, as well as with the global community.

BSR’s report titled, 'Private-Sector Collaboration for Sustainable Development,' identifies five success factors for high-impact collaborations.

They are: a compelling, common purpose; the right partners in the right roles; good governance; the design of an organization; and accountability.

Companies increasingly recognize the business case for contributing to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs outline areas for action by all sectors, which also correspond to the greatest risks to long-term business growth: for instance, poverty (SDG 1) and inequality (SDG 10) threaten the social stability that drives economic growth (SDG 8), while climate change (SDG 13) and keystone species extinction (SDG 15) weaken supply chains that provide food (SDG 2) and other raw materials (SDG 12).

Yet even large multinational companies, with their significant financial resources and global reach, are limited in the ability to reverse systemic issues on their own. Collaboration is required to develop and implement scalable solutions. The SDGs can serve as both a stimulus and a framework for these kinds of collaborations, helping businesses to align their sustainability investments with each other as well as with the global community.

Over the past decade, numerous impactful private-sector-led collaborations have emerged. For instance, as a contribution to Goal 8 of achieving employment and decent work for all, the Global Impact Sourcing Coalition has challenged its corporate members and their supply chain partners to hire 100,000 “impact workers”—individuals who otherwise have limited prospects for formal employment—by 2020. Many industry groups, such as those representing global mobile operators or air transport, are evaluating and tracking the impacts of their industries on the SDGs, and advocating for deeper impacts by their members through analysis, case studies, and partnerships. And corporate executives are increasingly involving themselves on the boards and leadership teams of advocacy and collective action initiatives to advance sustainable development and the SDGs through business, for example the CEO leaders of the B-Team.

BSR believes that, as the above examples demonstrate, business can be a driving force behind collaboration towards the SDGs. Yet collaboration for its own sake will not move the needle. To ensure that partners are aligned, are setting a high bar, and are motivated to stay the course, collaborations must be thoughtfully designed and well-managed, or they may risk being counter-productive.

In BSR’s latest report, Private-Sector Collaboration for Sustainable Development, we set about identifying the key success factors for high-impact collaborations. We reviewed 21 current and previous collaborations and interviewed more than 40 experts about the private sector’s role in collaborating to achieve the SDGs. We identified five key success factors that bring businesses to the table and keep them engaged:

  1. A compelling, common purpose offers a strong motivation to join a collaborative effort and unites participants around mission and strategy. Developing a compelling, common purpose takes time, as actors in the collaboration need to understand and accommodate opposing perspectives, build trust, and define what impact and success looks like for the initiative.
  2. The right partners in the right roles make a collaboration more than the sum of its parts. Two key elements of this success factor are: accessing and leveraging participants’ resources— including financial commitments, market leverage, reputation, and networks— at the time that they are most; and enlisting, empowering, and incentivizing the right individuals within the participating organizations, with a set of clear roles and responsibilities to which they are accountable.
  3. Good governance to ensure effective, efficient, balanced, and transparent decision-making motivates participants to contribute fully, while also ensuring the initiative’s actions are considered legitimate and authoritative by internal and external stakeholders. To maintain balance within the collaboration, participants may choose to make decisions through consensus, and bring to a vote issues only where there are strongly differing views.
  4. The design of an organization affects its performance. It is, therefore, important to consider at an early stage how the initiative will be staffed, housed, and financed, as well as how the activities and the organization itself are designed to evolve. Most collaborations have a secretariat which manages a wide range of functions that keep the initiative and its participants organized, accountable, and moving toward their objectives. Interviewees specifically called out the need to ensuring that the initiative is adequately financed to implement its activities and plan strategically, saying this can make or break a collaboration.
  5. Accountability sets expectations that participants are transparent with each other and external stakeholders. Accountability can be built into membership responsibilities, requiring that all members make a commitment to action, adopt the initiative’s measurement and evaluation practices, and agree on what information—including participants’ actions, and impacts—will be shared with external audiences.

The SDGs underpin business success. But to achieve them, the private sector must play a larger and more ambitious role in sustainability-focused collaborations. With its capacity for innovation and rapid scaling of new solutions, its contributions to creating jobs, and its potential to influence social norms and behaviors, the private sector can be a game-changer in achieving the Global Goals. By applying the five success factors outlined above, we can better focus the energies of businesses towards the collaborative efforts that are critical to the achievement of the future we want.

By Sara Enright and Dominic Kotas, BSR

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