How to prevent your sustainability collaboration from failing
This article was originally published in the BSR Insight.
More than ever before, companies are collaborating with stakeholders across their value chains, and even across entire regional or global governance systems, to learn about the systemic issues that curb long-term business growth — such as keystone species extinction, talent shortages and climate-threatened supply chains — and agree on joint actions to address them.
There are numerous examples of successful and impactful multistakeholder collaborations for sustainable development: For instance, half a billion children have been vaccinated and more than 9 million lives have been saved in the world’s poorest countries since the founding of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, in 2000. And the Maritime Anti-Corruption Network (MACN) is successfully driving progress to eliminate corruption across the maritime industry’s value chain, including influencing country regulatory frameworks to increase the efficiency, integrity and transparency of vessel inspections.
But it is also important to acknowledge the numerous collaborations that never get off the ground, are bogged down in governance negotiations, or struggle to drive meaningful action from participants to meet their impact goals. Learning from both the failures and successes helps to ensure that future collaborations do not repeat the mistakes of the past.
In our recent report, "Private-Sector Collaboration for Sustainable Development," we reviewed 21 current and previous collaborations and interviewed more than 40 experts about collaborating for sustainability. From this research, we identified risk factors across the lifecycle of collaborations, from start-up to early implementation to scaling. These include launching prematurely (before participants have had the opportunity to build trust and buy into the proposed solutions), insufficient resources to meet the ambitions of the collaboration, breaches of trust between participants, lack of leadership succession planning and mission creep.
If you are thinking of starting or joining a collaboration or are involved in one, you may encounter some of these red flags. Below are our recommendations for how to address or mitigate them. Some of these steps will require collective action from your collaboration, but you and your partners can improve the odds of success by raising issues as they arise, demonstrating commitment and taking actions to reduce the risk of failure.
In the start-up phase:
- Spend the time to prepare and engage critical participants. Multistakeholder initiatives take an average of 18 months (PDF) to move from early discussions to launch. This is a longer time frame than most participants expect, but the time is well spent on attaining buy-in and refining the initiative’s value proposition. Organizations that launch more rapidly are more likely to face challenges early in their growth because they don’t have sufficient participant support or an initial strategy for impact
- Diversify funding. Seeking seed funding from foundations or governments can help initiatives build their value proposition for companies to eventually back the effort themselves. This diverse funding also can make a collaboration better plan for the long term and can help to avoid the "free rider" problem, where competing companies avoid being the sole contributors to an effort that they see as beneficial to their peers.
During early implementation:
- Prioritize personal relationships and trust-building. Trust is the glue that holds organizations together when the going gets rough. Scheduling meetings in person — while time-intensive and expensive — can be an important investment in building relationships between participants, increasing their commitment to each other and the effort.
- Build a database of participant contacts. Relying too heavily on one point of contact for a participating organization can lead to burnout or loss of the relationship with his or her firm if that person leaves. Collaborations do well to identify several participant contacts and keep them informed about the collaboration’s progress, in case they need to step in.
- Rotate leaders. Some initiatives expose more people to leadership roles by instituting terms for key positions, such as the steering committee. This allows more organizations to participate in governance and creates natural periods for an initiative to refresh its strategic vision under new leadership. To maintain some consistency, it can be helpful to stagger terms. For example, a vice-chair could remain in office when a new chair is elected.
- Agree upfront on milestones for scaling or sunsetting. When designing the initiative, members can agree on indicators or milestones to review during each strategy cycle to determine when it may be time to consider different growth paths, including scaling to new geographies or sectors, spinning off, merging, pivoting or sunsetting the initiative. Some initiatives may determine from the beginning that they will be time-bound, lasting only a few years to accomplish their objective.
Private-sector collaboration for sustainability has enormous potential — but it is challenging to do well. Rushing into a collaboration without the necessary structures and planning can be a recipe for failure.
At BSR, we have 20 years of experience in designing, implementing and scaling collaborative initiatives. Some have run for decades with ever-growing impact; some have sunset with relative satisfaction; and some have failed to take off. These successes and the failures help us build our expertise in managing collaborative initiatives.