Insight & Analysis

Five Common mistakes that destroy multi-sector CSR partnerships

By Wayne Dunn

Wayne Dunn

Wayne Dunn is an award-winning global CSR expert with extensive teaching, writing, lecturing and Advisory Service experience. He is supported by an extensive faculty and advisory team.

Five Common mistakes that prevent and destroy multi-sector CSR partnerships
The private sector is playing an increasingly important role in development.  Companies from all sectors, including especially the extractive and fast moving consumer goods sectors, are investing in development initiatives in areas such as education, health, poverty alleviation and livelihoods, environment and gender equality.
The impact areas of these private sector social responsibility investments closely maps the impact areas outlined in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and anticipated impact areas of the soon to be adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The MDGs and SDGs serve to guide the development activities of the member countries of the United Nations and the vast majority of development NGOs and organizations.  Official Development Agencies, national governments, multi-lateral and international organizations and NGOs focus development efforts on areas such as education, health, poverty alleviation and livelihoods, environment and gender equality
While the various private, public and civil society organizations noted above approach development with a focus on common areas, they often bring unique skills, experience and capacities to the work. 
In many cases these are complimentary and synergistic, at first glance, would seem to naturally invite partnerships and collaboration and the various sectors (e.g., ODA agencies, private sector, NGOs, etc.) even have stated goals of collaborating with each other in support of their development efforts. 
Simple logic would suggest that collaboration would result in efficiencies and more and better development impact per dollar spent or effort expended.

Value is lost for all partners and for society when 
multi-sector partnership opportunities fail to start or start and fail

Yet, the reality is that, while there are notable exceptions, this collaboration is not easy to achieve.  Whether on an individual project level or a strategic organizational level these natural partnership opportunities too often do not result in effective partnerships. 
Value is lost for the organizations involved but the real price is paid by their community partners who do not receive the full impact that they could have received had these natural partners found an effective way to collaborate.
Here are 5 common reasons why they start and fail, or even fail to start.
1.     Egos of main actors
This is common to the destruction of many different sorts of partnerships.  What makes multi-sector CSR partnerships more prone to ego related challenges is that, in many cases, the partnering organizations will have a general history of opposition or antagonism towards each other.
For industry to embrace and support the role that NGOs and development agencies can play in the success of a business or project is relatively new.  Similarly for NGOs and development agencies to acknowledge the important role of the private sector in development projects.  In many cases the sectors, or at least many organizations within them, have been actively opposed to each other.
These means that in some instances a 180 degree about face is necessary along with an acknowledgement that previous perspectives were flawed.  This can often be overlooked during the giddy early days of a partnership but will often come back in a destructive way as the partnership plays out over time
2.     Didn’t hang in through the tough stuff
Every partnership is bound to run into difficult challenges over time.  Project issues arise, personnel changes, partners have strong opposing views on external issues, finances come under pressure, etc.   Sometimes these come out of the blue and sometimes there is a slow build up over time.
In many instances if the partners can hang in there the issues will either resolve themselves, or they will find a mutually acceptable way to work through them.
However, for reasons discussed above, there are latent pressures in the partnership that can surface when other issues emerge.  This can make it more difficult to work through the inevitable issues and challenges that always show up.
Those partnerships that survive over time will find ways to hang in and work through the rough spots and will also actively seek to reduce the latent pressures.
Conflict and differences of opinion happen in every partnership.  All the time.  There are ways to systematically prevent conflict and disagreement from destroying partnerships

3.     Internal buy-in wasn’t there
Multi-sector CSR partnerships are often developed and negotiated by front line personnel with some level of support or acquiescence from corporate and NGO head offices.  They frequently end up in place and operating without ever really getting the attention of key senior stakeholders.
In many cases the partnerships bring both an expanded and enhanced ability to achieve some of an organization’s objectives and, along with that, constraints in other areas. 
As partnership and relations issues arise, as they always will, there is sometimes a sudden realization in the leadership ranks that the partnership has taken away degrees of freedom to act.  This can be exacerbated by historical organizational opposition as noted above.
When this happens you can have key internal stakeholders, who hadn’t really paid attention to the creation of the partnership and don’t have any ‘ownership’ in it, start to question both the partnership itself and the general principle of multi-sector CSR partnerships.
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Keeping everyone pulling in the same direction takes ongoing effort.  Just because everyone pulls together at the start doesn’t meant that they will keep pulling in the same direction.  
Many things can happen to change aligned interests to opposing forces

4.     Only business is efficient mentality
Historically there has been a strong theme in many business sectors that business is inherently more efficient.  The theme maintains that because it more directly subjected to the demands of the marketplace, business is somehow more efficient than NGOs and governments.
Dig deep enough and you will find that perspective exists somewhere in most businesses and sometimes can permeate individual businesses and even large swaths of industry sectors.
This mentality can surface when problems arise and present barriers that prevent the challenges from being worked through objectively or prevent constructive solutions from emerging. 
Too often you will see much effort being put into finding confirming evidence of inefficiency, rather than a balanced analysis looking for examples of efficiency and inefficiency and their underlying causes. 
This can create a dangerous spiral that can undermine even the best partnerships.
5.     Business is too greedy mentality
The NGO equivalent of the Only business is efficient mentality is the Business is too greedy perspective
NGO partners that fall into this perspective are prone to examining business decisions only from this vantage point and not taking a more balance and objective approach to understand the ‘why’ of business decisions.
Confirming evidence is sought and focused on and more and more partnership and operational decisions of the business are seen as being based, at least partly on greed
There is another discussion on the relationship between greed and shareholder interest, which are often quite different.  Greed based decisions tend to be short-term and with narrowly defined interests.  Longer-term strategic shareholder interests are broader and provide much more scope for interest alignment.
As with the only business is efficient mentality the business is greedy perspective can create a partnership killing spiral of unbalanced confirming evidence.
These are some of the reasons that multi-sector partnerships, that start off with enthusiasm, potential and goodwill, can fall off the rails and turn aligned interest into lose-lose situations
Strategy and insight can turn opposing forces into aligned interests
Avoid the temptation to pull apart.  Find a way to win together

I will be posting more thoughts on this topic in the coming weeks.  If you are interested, we are offering a training forum on the subject in Ottawa, Canada in March see below.
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This five-day hands-on Certified Executive Training Forum will leave you ready to develop and implement multi-sector CSR and development partnerships that will help drive your organization’s success.  The program brings together a global group of executives and managers from industry, NGOs, development agencies and international organizations to learn with and from each other.
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Led by an experienced global faculty with decades of strategic and ‘in the trenches’ experience in CSR and development partnerships the program will leave you with the tools and knowledge to be successful in negotiating and managing multi-sector CSR partnerships.  It is based on a pragmatic blend of lectures, case studies, group work, strategic simulations and facilitated and spontaneous group experiences that bridge theory and practice in a pragmatic and effective way. 


Register here: http://eepurl.com/7Iy6b or contact CSR Training Institute for more information here