Partners Coming Together Summary, Panel Discussion
The opening panel, moderated by Gerald Keusch, associate dean of the School of Public Health at Boston University, was a discussion of the initial stages of partnership formation. As discussed earlier, the definition of and rationale for partnerships for sustainability is that partners come together in order to accomplish collectively what they cannot accomplish individually. Consequently, there are several aspects of the initial phase of partnering that seem to provide insight into building successful and sustainable partnerships. In particular, discussions on this topic focused on three issues: initial acceptance, including incentives and motivations; barriers to partnering; and the sequence of engaging partners.
Acceptance is a broad topic, but it was divided into two themes: acceptance of a partner by other partners, and internal acceptance within the hierarchy of any given partner’s institution. In all of the cases examined, partners had shared commitments to some broadly defined sustainability goals around which the partnership would eventually form. The possible exception might be the Farm to Fork Initiative, which began as a potentially adversarial relationship in which a shareholder, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, sought to engage Smithfield Foods and hold it accountable for its environmental record. However, Smithfield was quite concerned with its reputation, particularly as it sought to build brand recognition, and so even if the two initial partners did not have the same goal, they were at least aligned, making it possible to explore opportunities to cooperate. Both sides were open to public reporting, and perhaps more important, individuals within the organizations were open to new ideas and innovative solutions.
For the other partnerships discussed, goals were much more closely aligned. In the case of the Sustainable Forest Products Global Alliance (SFPGA; Chapter XI), government, NGO, and private sector partners shared a commitment to reducing illegal logging and expanding the market share of sustainable products. However, each was also motivated by a secondary—but not necessarily overt—objective. The U.S. Agency for International Development sought to demonstrate that market-based tools are more effective than enforcement in curtailing illegal logging, and to generally build relationships with business; the NGOs (World Wildlife Fund and Metafore) sought to increase their own legitimacy through an association with the U.S. government, and also access additional funds to carry out their work; and the private companies liked being associated with government (to aid relations with producer countries, as well as avail themselves of USAID’s in-country expertise). They believed that the partnership could improve their reputations, and finally, that it increased their supply chain efficiency through this linkage to other companies with a similar commitment.
Acceptance was a critical issue for Agua para Todos (APT; Chapter X) because it grew out of a politicized and volatile atmosphere—the “Cochabamba Water Wars” of 2000. Dynamic leadership on the part of the private sector appeared to be an essential factor in catalyzing the partnership. The private business, Agua Tuya, was well known and respected within the technical community. Essentially, leaders within Agua Tuya were able to convince other potential partners that working together would add value to their individual efforts. The public sector partner (SEMAPA) lacked capacity in terms of resources and skills, and so was naturally drawn to a private sector partner that could provide this additional capacity. Local water committees were important to the overall system because they were able to build more secondary systems, though they relied on SEMAPA to provide their main supply of water. The community accepted this partnership largely because the local partners, namely the water committees, had already bought in.
The Green Power Market Development Group (GPMDG; Chapter VII) was described as a club—it had not previously existed, and so partners endeavored to create it. Led by an NGO, the World Resources Institute, which desired to promote “green power” as a concept, several corporations with existing sustainability strategies and commitments to improve their environmental records joined together in a partnership. The GPMDG offered the “club goods” of knowledge and information diffusion, along with reputational recognition for their efforts. On the face of it, this might have appeared self-serving, but partners pointed out that these club goods should also lead to broader public goods, i.e., more green power on the market. GPMDG companies pointed out that they could have done what
they did without forming a partnership, but that the added value was in the process of internalizing the concept of green power among a broader group of leading companies. This convening mechanism certainly helped the individual companies make progress in pursuing sustainability strategies.
This case highlighted the importance of internal institutional acceptance, which is vital to productive partners and a successful partnership. Top management in a given institution does not necessarily need to endorse a partnering activity from the start, but it must give individuals from within the institution the space to work collaboratively and creatively to participate in a partnership. These people must be willing to think beyond traditional institutional boundaries and operate informally as a core group of partners materializes. Large organizations in particular may need a small group of people, as opposed to a single “champion,” who collectively have sufficient leverage to “run the idea up the flagpole” once the core group of partners decides to bring their home institutions on board. Ground rules for discussions and external facilitation can make management more comfortable with engaging in cross-sector work. In the case of the Multilateral Initiative on Malaria (MIM; Chapter XV), an informal dialogue referred to as Heads of International Research Organizations (HIRO) might have opened up opportunities for more collaboration among these major organizations and given employees further down the license to innovate. It is also helpful when the partnering institutions have compatible management cultures, so that they can move at comparable speeds and with sufficient flexibility. To that end, an organization ought to have its internal strategy sorted out (e.g., when and how it will engage in a partnership) before pursuing alliances with other organizations.
Naturally, these cross-sector activities present initial barriers not ordinarily encountered in the day-to-day activities of a single institution, and a number of these might be generalized to partnerships in their early stages. Institutional mismatches are not uncommon. USAID’s interest in partnering with the private sector was tempered by a slow approval process and no existing legal mechanism to facilitate a partnership, causing prospective private sector partners to continue working directly with partner NGOs, and then by extension, with USAID. For MIM, despite strong agreement on priorities for action, not enough attention was paid to how these different institutions could logistically coordinate their activities and specifically, develop a common pot of funding. Ultimately, the partnering institutions elected to avoid the legal and bureaucratic challenges of combining funds, and instead, they remained loosely coordinated (four autonomous components), and housed some of the more visible elements, such as the training component, in a neutral, non-political setting—the World Health Organization. Funding was a challenge for Sustainable Silicon Valley (SSV; Chapter XIII) as well. Though this partnership engaged several large and profitable
corporations, they were not willing to invest in a risky cross-sector activity. The California state government had to make the initial investment and appoint a staff person who could coordinate dialogue among the regional stakeholders.
For some other partnerships, the initial barriers had more to do with the essential element of trust among partners. Smithfield Foods and the Nathan Cummings Foundation were drawn into a partnership (Chapter XVII) after the foundation’s shareholder resolution caused Smithfield to critically examine its own reporting and how its supply chain is reviewed. In order to gain the trust of the foundation, an important shareholder—Smithfield—needed to change the way it did its public reporting, and specifically, to adopt a more transparent, third-party form of reporting. Another partnership involving supply chains, the Common Code for the Coffee Community (4C; Chapter XII), was initially held up by concerns over antitrust activity; the various companies involved had to be careful to avoid discussing “the p word”—price.
Another initial problem for 4C was that when new partners came into the fold, some of the incoming institutions rewrote a roles and responsibilities paper without having been part of the initial partnership discussions. This created tension, as it seemed to undermine the trust among the core group that had been established over the course of many months. It begs the question, then, of how to identify the right mix of partners to form a core group, but also the right number of partners so that adding partners later on will not disrupt or hamper the all-important trust building. Several participants noted that starting small and expanding was not only easier, but necessary, to engage more partners. For Agua para Todos, which depended upon local initiative, the small group of local actors was able to demonstrate some success, which then helped attract more partners (including international organizations) as it attempted to scale up its efforts. Sustainable Silicon Valley also depended upon a small initial group of 10 partners who served as a demonstration project, which then helped bring aboard dozens of additional regional partners. Often, if a partnership demonstrates that it has made progress towards its goals, then additional partners will self-identify and seek a spot at the table. In general, the first phase for most of these partnerships was rather informal, and goals changed as the partnership matured. As the partnership became more formalized, more partners joined, and though specific goals and even the culture of the partnership could change to reflect new members, there were certain core goals or values that stayed constant.
Finally, panelists addressed the question of upfront analysis; how strategic, if at all, were partners as they made the decision to engage in a partnership activity? Some partnerships might be viewed as a simple emotional response, as well-meaning organizations decide to work together and tackle
an issue that is not being sufficiently addressed. Several of the partnerships examined, including 4C, MIM, and REEEP, did some analysis before a partnership was formed, whether holding workshops to identify where a partnership might make unique contributions, or commissioning analytical reviews to assess needs and potential responses in a given field. Getting the right organizations involved (in terms of mandates and competencies), and understanding their individual motivations for participating is often critical to success. Particularly for a partnership focusing on R&D, it is imperative to assess early on what combination of partners and resources are necessary to construct a successful endeavor; but in any case, it might not be necessary to hold up progress while waiting for the perfect combination of partners. As Charles Vest noted, partnerships require that we identify emotional drivers (e.g., how we want the world to be) and then weave these together with what we know to be scientific reality and what we believe is possible through the judicious application of technology.