Save the Children: Why the SDGs rely on business partnerships

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This article originally appeared at Corporate Citizenship as part of its "Leader Insights Series: Business Action on the Sustainable Development Goals," written by leaders from across industries and sectors. The full series appears here 

The role of business is significant — the private sector can and should help to address the global challenges we face.

Sustainable business growth is needed to enable real progress for many Sustainable Development Goals. This role is not solely finance and investment. Whilst of course this is still needed, it is also about resources, expertise and strategic business change that consider human rights and the environment, alongside economic growth.

There already is some awareness of the SDGs amongst companies. But many are struggling with the how — unsure of how to develop a framework to take action and contribute to the goals. Ultimately, we need a proper dialogue between sectors: the non-profit, private and other actors such as the civil society and governments, to look at where we can come together to create real change.

New trends on SDG 17: Partnerships

There has been a shift [in how corporates engage with Save the Children and the broader non-profit sector since the launch of the SDGs] and the focus is increasingly on innovation and collaboration. Co-creation is an emerging trend, and I think this naturally starts with dialogue and looking at shared value approaches, which can focus on both business value and social impact. As an NGO we should be open to this dialogue.

We’re also seeing trends around the types of resources we can access from partners, whether it’s in kind contributions, pro-bono and business expertise and knowledge. There’s a real opportunity for skills-transfer, but companies need to understand the seriousness of the undertaking when placing staff to execute pro-bono and volunteering initiatives. When it’s done properly, the expertise NGOs can get through private sector can enhance the way we work, both at the head office, program and field level.

We are likely to see more coalitions and collaboration between corporate partners and different actors. There are not many examples of true multi-sector, multi-partner partnerships, but this offers huge opportunity to impact the goals.

Effective collaboration between business and NGOs on SDGs

Business needs to buy into the power of partnerships with the development sector.

I think what’s needed is CEO level down support to engage more effectively. Quite often, if the senior leadership team and the executive team on the private sector side are engaged, they tend to put well-experienced people on such partnerships, as well as engage across the business. These individuals can help galvanize progress through critical business areas such as research and development, product development, sourcing and supply chain. 

Ultimately, to engage effectively on global challenges you need the buy-in of leaders across the business, as well as the CSR/Comms teams.

Opportunities for businesses

The SDGs present opportunities for business to focus on sustainable growth. International NGOs can provide on-the-ground knowledge and our insights for innovation, which could help them support vulnerable communities and growth markets and ultimately help drive business strategy.

With GlaxoSmithKline, for example, we are supporting the creation of stronger health systems and improved health infrastructure, through our health programming. This, in turn, creates long-term opportunities for stakeholders such as GSK.

With Unilever and Prudential, for example, we are focusing on emergency preparedness and disaster risk reduction. Through our work, we are enabling communities, governments and ultimately their business infrastructures to become more resilient in parts of the world which are vulnerable to disaster. This provides a strong business case for the private sector to get involved.

Leadership to go beyond 'business as usual'

The leadership style needed is one that is willing to have open dialogue with the development sector around what the business is looking for. It requires a leader who is not afraid of articulating that the company needs to deliver value for the business but is also committed to solving some of the global challenges facing the world — seeing the opportunity in doing both.

That needs to be someone who can galvanize, engage and mobilize staff. A good example is Paul Polman, who has set significant business growth goals with Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan. We need this type of leadership, someone driven both commercially and by purpose.