Anita Varshney, Vice President of SAP Next-Gen and Collab advisor at the American Express Leadership Academy in Hong Kong, takes a look at how collaborative work can occur through purpose-led partnerships between corporates and NGOs in order to bring communities together and create positive change in an increasingly complex world.

The vision is clear and compelling: a world in which business prospers, societies thrive and the environment flourishes. Businesses need to look beyond immediate short-term financial results, and instead towards building long-term business and societal value in order to achieve our Sustainable Development Global Goals, just as you may have read about in the recently signed Business Roundtable announcement.

Partnerships are at the core of making this shift. To solve the complex global problems, businesses need to create networks that can act together to reach the common goals. These networks in turn rely on coalitions which sometimes have to be both big and effective. Orchestrating this kind of collective effort is possible when a single organization serves as a catalyst, resulting in a small group of organizations driving a much wider network of change together.

Businesses, governments, startups, academia and NGOs need to foster creative partnerships. Any business that wants to engage in a more productive and sustainable relationship with society, has to form partnerships with NGOs and other organizations that exist to champion social and environmental causes to bring about positive change. But aligning to each of their disparate agendas can be a tricky task. How can we build trust, understanding and find common ground? We discussed this and some other ideas with outstanding leaders in Hong Kong’s NGO sector during the American Express Leadership Academy. We shared successful models and practices from the UN Global Compact and P4G : Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals for 2030, who are leading by example as they encourage and support responsible, inclusive and sustainable business.

Collaboration can mean much more than simply benefiting from each other’s resources, budget, reputation and capabilities. Increasingly, we are moving away from the ‘transactional partnership’ based on a merely contractual relationship, to something more transformational and two-way; a meaningful partnership, where shared goals are at the core of the strategy and impact is achieved for both partners. Boundaries between sectors are becoming blurred with the interdependencies becoming more pronounced. However, with these complexities, the sectors need to become better able to find common ground. Businesses and NGOs - if open minded about working together and not afraid to take risks to collaborate in new ways - can ensure a great foundation for purpose-led partnership models. We must create a level playing field, where each partner can mutually respect the other.

NGOs are in the business of serving communities, very often giving back more and believing in the power of delivering good to larger societies. Corporates need to value NGO’s contribution, much beyond just enhancing its brand value and credibility in the market. Given that, corporations and NGOs are very different in their goals, structures, motivating factors and organizational cultures. NGOs bring access to networks that are often not available to the private sector including community networks, existing relations with government sectors or UN entities, links to grassroots movements, and all the way down to the citizens, who benefit from the programme. They often bring sector knowledge, both in technical areas and in business models for dealing with social goods, and resources. The intense passion and commitment from NGOs, when combined with a business’s laser sharp focus on deliverables and impact, can lead to something truly powerful.

If we are to build strong purpose-led partnerships, it is important to cultivate a shared vision for change. As a starting point, creating a shared knowledge base by jointly mapping and defining the major issues, risks, opportunities and stakeholders in the system, helps to further solidify the foundation. Building on this understanding, a series of moderated discussions among the key players can help define and create buy-in for a shared vision. The vision plays a unifying role, expressing the shared values and aspirations of all the stakeholders.

Aligning overall goals from the organization levels, down to team and individual levels is crucial to make the partnership successful. The partnership has to feel important on both sides and both partners have to have skin in the game to make it work. Trust plays an important role here, and jointly setting up targets and deliverables work in favour of building a win-win model – bringing together both partners in a cohesive and seamless way in order to succeed. There needs to be mutually accepted metrics to gauge the success of the relationship and its impact. The relationship should ideally lead to tangible business value for the company and measurably contribute to the NGO’s social purpose.

Self-sustaining partnership models, which are able to scale the original value proposition across other corporate, government and academic partners to grow the original vision, are also becoming very relevant. Partners who are willing to take risks and develop new and unconventional alliances at the individual, corporate, and network level are now trending. Successful models often lack formal hierarchy and depend upon voluntary commitments and incentive-driven action. Teams must come together to define goals that create incentives for action and innovation that benefits both the individual organization and the network, measured by concrete performance targets. Meeting these goals may require new skills and capacities, as well as new financing models.

Other important aspects in successful partnerships include, periodic monitoring to assess and improve on a timely basis, and board sponsorships as shifts in priorities happen often - particularly from the corporate side - preventing the development of a long-term, strategic relationship.

Cross-sector partnerships can be a force for growth, achieving the scale and sustained impact we need to see. With unique responsibility, accountability and action, transformation can be created and sustained for real, positive impact. Partnerships can unleash innovative ways of working, mobilizing expertise and hard to reach resources, and can create shared accountability in an increasingly complex world. There is a real opportunity to develop new approaches to partnering that go beyond philanthropy, towards generating shared value. Each sector has a valuable role to play, but it is in collaboration that real transformation comes.