While Sustainable Development Goal 17 promotes cross-sector partnerships, they often come attached with their own set of challenges. Here, Lea Stadtler of the Grenoble School of Management, argues the best partnerships should promote healthy competition.
Partnerships, especially cross-sector partnerships (CSP) between companies, governments, and civil society actors are high on the agenda. For example, the Sustainable Development Goal 17 promotes this innovative form of collaboration to “mobilize, redirect and unlock the transformative power of … private resources to deliver on sustainable development objectives.” The arguments are compelling: CSPs may bring to bear the collective and complementary resources and expertise across sectors so as to address societal challenges more holistically.
For example, the Jordanian government, companies, individuals, and NGOs in the partnership Madrasati seek to improve the learning environments of Jordan’s most neglected public schools. Likewise, an insurance company, humanitarian and research partners collaborate in the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance to save the livelihoods of the poorest by preventing floods from becoming disasters.
By means of CSPs – the assumption goes – we can work towards an integrated, innovative solution landscape. Yet, companies may prefer to have their “own” partnership with selected NGOs and public partners as it gives them greater discretion in the CSP management, exclusive relationships, and distinctive reputational benefits. In the long run, however, these one-company CSPs risk fragmenting the solution landscape. Greater integration calls for multiple companies joining their forces in one CSP. Because of the scale and vast resources involved, such partnerships harbour tremendous potential. Yet they also bring up the topic of competition. In this regard, two main misunderstandings prevail:
First, we naively like to believe that there will be no competition when we are collaborating in social projects. Yet at times of strategic CSR companies increasingly pursue reputation and market-related interests in CSPs, which they may compete over. For example, when leading IT companies came together with governments and NGOs in the Global Education Initiative to enhance public education with their products and expertise, they all wanted a bigger piece of the pie when it came to getting media attention, benefiting from preferential access to educational institutions and actors, and testing the waters of future markets. Like it or not, competition will be around.
Second, in the social context we think about competition mostly in negative terms – something that should be removed from the CSP. But here recent research shows that reality is more complex. Depending on how companies are supposed to interact in the partnership, competition may even be used to spur, and sustain, commitment.
This requires a deeper view of the interaction structure. On the one hand, companies may need to work together when collaborating with governments and NGOs, thereby merging their resource contributions and expertise in real-time. In this setting, competition may cause destructive tensions and thus needs to be reduced as best as possible. A pioneering example are the Logistics Emergency Teams (LET), comprised of four of the largest global logistics and transportation companies: Agility, UPS, Maersk, and DP World. In response to natural disasters, these companies successfully integrate their logistics expertise, manpower, and capacities in joint teams that support the Logistics Cluster led by United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).
In response to the 2016 hurricane hitting Haiti, the LET partners supported the WFP by facilitating air freight, donating shipping capacity, and providing free storage space. But the real value comes from their preparation ahead of disasters, enabling them to make the most of private contributions when a disaster strikes.
Competition is a topic that the LET partners treat very carefully and try to mitigate by strongly investing in trusting relationships, by defining guidelines clarifying operational, media, and government-related processes, and by training their employees on collaborative principles and on how to behave in delicate situations.
On the other hand, there are CSPs bundling the contributions of several companies, such as Grow Africa or the Global Education Initiative, and in which the corporate contributions add up within a predefined framework without requiring direct operational interactions. It is rather the role of a public or NGO partner to coordinate, integrate, and govern the different corporate contributions. In this setting, research shows that competition can be spurred to enhance corporate commitment. This can be done, for example, by designing comparable company involvement and transparent monitoring and evaluation systems. But it also requires significant knowledge about corporate incentive systems from the side of the “bridging” government or NGO organisation.
Overall, the phenomenon of cause-related “coopetition” – that is, the simultaneous collaboration and competition among companies for a social cause – has attracted far too little attention. I see it as a fascinating field for research and practice since, if managed carefully, it may help move towards a more integrative solution landscape that offers innovative approaches at scale.
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