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Working together makes things better

2020 represents a pivotal year for the global community to demonstrate meaningful progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Scientific studies, economic reports, and the media present a bleak prognosis for success, with accelerated timelines, increasing inequalities, and geo-instability influencing the environment in which positive social change needs to take root.

At the center of all of this is the increasingly popular call for partnerships. If one were to do a sentiment analysis of any global gathering, like last month’s World Economic Forum gathering in Davos or the United Nations’ General Assembly each September in New York City, I’m sure said budding anthropologist would see a noticeable spike year on year in how people define their interests, goals, and objectives, within a partnering framework.

Absent of such a study (if you’ve conducted this analysis, let me know!), I can only provide anecdotal evidence that the tone and tenor of the international community is decidedly pro-partnership. But, why? And, will it be enough?

It is true that cross-sector collaboration can unlock a deeper understanding of complex challenges, crowd in new or deeper funding, allow for intervention at scale, and ultimately — hopefully — result in sustained positive impact. We’ve seen successful projects engage industry competitors around the same table for a common agenda, like the 2019 P3 Impact Award Winner that brought together no less than 5 different oil companies alongside academia, medical technology companies, and the Government of Equatorial Guinea to nearly eradicate malaria in Bioko Island.

We’ve seen clearly-aligned nonprofits and industries come together to support childhood nutrition in countries like India. And, we’ve seen foundations partner with governments and coffee giants to create powerful market levers that contribute to peace in Colombia. Whether the goal of the partnership be market access and profit driven or purely humanitarian in nature, it’s clear that likely, and unlikely, bedfellows are increasingly leveraging the power of partnerships to address the SDGs.

The private sector has widely adopted partnerships as a model for both risk mitigation and market expansion. Call me an idealistic millennial, but I think there’s something deeper than a “keeping up with the Jones’” corporate attitude driving the increase in partnerships. Not only has there been a surge in the understanding that governments cannot, and should not, go it alone in trying to resolve our global environmental, social, and governance challenges, but for the first time there has been an opening for engagement that welcomes true private sector partnership.

Partnership, in this instance, being rooted in co-collaboration, open and ongoing communication, acceptance — if not appreciation — of each other’s internal goals and objectives, and shared project goal setting. It is these types of authentic partnerships that are increasingly taking hold, rather than transactional engagements that dominated earlier decades, and their success begets more success.

This is a good thing, as drastic changes to ‘business as usual’ are essential to achieve the 2030 agenda. But the pressure must be maintained. Partnerships that merely offset negative environmental or social impact are a welcome evolution of corporate strategy, but will not be enough. Instead, we must look to companies that are, through partnerships, attempting to reverse damaging industry practices.

Mars, for example, is adopting climate smart agriculture practices that exceed the measures globally called for to safeguard the 2 degree climate warming threshold, committing itself to practices consistent with a 1.5 degree change and working not only with its own company practices but deep into its supply chain. Microsoft announced plans to be carbon negative by 2030, leading the way for the tech industry and its extractive-rich supply chain to follow suit.

Starbucks is commiting to conserve or replenish 50% of all the water it uses. This next level of corporate leadership that pushes standards should be discussed in every board room and strategy session, as governments and markets will increasingly call on companies to be a positive actor — not just a neutral one.

Progress in the past decade has solidified partnerships as an element of corporate — not just philanthropic — strategy, and has empowered industry actors as a part of the project, and not just a funding source. This progress must now accelerate to welcome the private sector as a part of the solution.

This means actively working with companies on ambitious goals — their success is our success — and widening the tent around how to partner, and with who. Above all, it means never settling for business as usual or being satisfied by a simple ‘do no harm’ partnering mentality, but instead demanding industry-wide change that helps accomplish the Global Goals.

Concordia is a New York-based nonprofit that facilitates cross-sector collaboration for social impact. The Annual Summit, Concordia’s signature gathering, takes place in New York City each September and is the largest and most inclusive gathering alongside the UN General Assembly. Learn more at Concordia.net

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