One thing is certain in today’s ‘interconnected’ world; we all need each other like never before, bottom up and top down. Governments are continuing to tragically lose power, influence and authority, resulting in global instability, whereby there is a new hunger within society for accountability and responsibility from business. NGOs are becoming increasingly more powerful, creating pro-social movements forcing change upon those in power, be it business or politics, with or without their consent.

The power of partnerships in addressing the significant challenges societies face today cannot be over-estimated. Let us be clear that society does not mean simply consumers. Society includes government institutions, business and suppliers; fundamentally society is made up of people; including investors, analysts, brokers, employees and shareholders.

Only partnerships can address the fast-growing credibility gap organisations face when starting to move towards the only long-term viable business model, one of sustainable, profitable business.

Companies that practice a sustainable growth business model, with partnerships at the core, are proven to

  • Benefit economically by reducing their environmental and societal impact
  • Possess more negotiation power with regulators and government institutions
  • Engender greater support and longevity from communities and consumers

Those that do not, I can only assume, must still think they are operating on a planet with infinite resources, at least until the next annual report is due. I wonder what this report will be printed on though, when all of the trees are gone?

Businesses that open doors to partnerships create far more value for both their business and society. Not least by building a coalition of supporters that will return the favour. Simply, if businesses improve the livelihoods of people by building well-being into their operations, they will create new and loyal consumers.

A powerful NGO or CSO will add many facets to a partnership including legitimacy, mutual interest promotion, community trust and institutional leverage. There is no doubt that creating partnerships where all parties understand and accept the up and downside of compromise and strive for a positive future, will bring reward to all.

Even if the motivation and reward is fundamentally subjective for each party, sharing the same general ‘direction of travel’ will enable organisations to protect their license to operate. This could be by delivering shared initiatives and programmes, delivering positive outcomes across the fiscal and social spectrum.

From our experience, we see the following as being the most significant challenges in enabling positive, pro-business, pro-social partnerships to be formed:

Blind Fear

Private sector and NGOs appear to be on a default setting of distrust, a result of decades of ironic ‘absolutist’ behaviours and/or mindsets for all parties that classed compromise as the cardinal sin. Realising that it takes courage and purpose to cross this chasm of cultures should be recognised and respected, rather than be seen as an act of treason. For those that manage it will often take first-mover advantage alongside the opportunity to realize tangible and intangible benefit, as discussed.

Unicef’s steadfast refusal to wholly engage with the manufacturers of infant nutrition may well prove to be counter productive, as millions more rural women are forced to leave their children in the countryside without adequate nutrition, to enter the new urban workforce, for example.

No Purpose

Organisations that lack a ‘True North’ or purpose will struggle to identify appropriate partners and will likely fail in their endeavours to engage. Creating powerful partnerships requires authenticity, the ability to commit – ‘skin in the game’ – and an understanding of the end game. If you spend time identifying what you stand for, you will know who will stand with you.

The seafood industry in Thailand (dominated by a small number of big players) has systemically failed to identify strong NGO and cross-sector stakeholders in the recent past. As a result, it is now faced with import bans, significant reputational damage and ‘loss of face’ for the country due to uncovered bad practices. An appropriate partnership could have worked discretely to address or even identify these issues. Instead, the industry is lost at sea, constantly pilloried, with no credible stakeholder support.


Companies that are merely looking to badge existing ‘cheques for charity’ CSR programmes will suffer the same way non-sustainable businesses are; they will win the quarter, but may well lose the year. No sustainable partnership should ever be entered into for ‘short-term’ goals – it would be an oxymoron, or just moronic. Long-term problems require long-term partnerships to ensure long-term growth.

An unnamed multi-national in South-East Asia recently jeopardized a programme with a leading global NGO, claiming a lack of ‘marketing support’ or ‘alignment with the products’ it manufactured. The NGO had been effectively tackling some taboo social problems and employees had significant pride in the work. It was discrete, but engendered a vast ‘deal’ of social capital within the company; to end it would have created significant internal distrust.

It is said that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. I believe the single biggest threat to that tree is the belief that someone else will save it. Today, businesses and organisations have the opportunity to create powerful partnerships to plant trees for all our tomorrows; it is in your interest that you start.