Rethinking Collaboration: Collaboration in Action

By Zahid Torres-Rahman, Founder and Director, Business Fights Poverty

At our recent annual flagship event at Oxford University, Business Fights Poverty Oxford 2017, one of our panels brought together a panel of business, government and NGO pioneers who are putting collaboration into action. Watch the video of the session and read the summary.

On July 10 and 11, over 300 people came together for our annual flagship event, Business Fights Poverty Oxford 2017 at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. The headline sponsor for the event was Mars Inc. It was held in association with the Center for Business and Poverty at the University of Wisconsin Madison and with the support of Diageo, IFC and a number of other partners.

Watch some of the highlights of the event in the 3-minute video below:

The theme of the event was “Rethinking Collaboration for Social Impact”. One of the sessions focused on Collaboration in Action and featured Kate Wylie, Global Sustainability Director, Mars Inc, David Croft, Global Sustainable Development Director, Diageo, Alex Lankester, Head of Corporate Partnerships, Oxfam GB, and Laura Kelly, Head, Business Engagement Hub, UK Department for International Development. The session was moderated by Rachael Clay, Director, Ethicore. Watch the full video below!

Embodying the shared visions of the collaborative approach, the panel of business, government and NGO representatives showed considerable unity of purpose and approach in this lively and informative discussion – as the chair invited everyone to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in, exploring practical examples of collaboration… with all their unique gains, pains and possibilities.

Everyone agreed that systemic challenges in delivering the SDGs made collaboration a fundamental necessity. These problems are too big for any one organisation, and no one sector has all the answers. However, these endeavours surface new challenges of their own, including:

1. Commercial realities of business: to make development goals work achievable, they have to be core to the corporate objectives, so they’re self-sustaining. There has to be mutual benefit, whether in market access or supply chain security, and whilst the SDGs provide shared vision, individual objectives will inevitably be more transactional. Non-profits need to be as clear about this as corporates.

2. Whilst big business can be an anchoring presence in a collaborative ecosystem, SMEs are a vital part of the value chain, and therefore of any solution. The big company/small company interface can be a challenge to navigate, as can liaison with larger organisations in emerging markets. Trust and shared intentions are vital, as is effective dissemination of previous learning and success. Synthesising knowledge and cascading knowledge amplifies and enhances gains.

3. Business and NGOs run processes in different ways, both in decision-making and timeframes, and practicalities like financing and resourcing. DFID’s business partnership fund aims to make funding flexible and responsive, so needs can be met and good ideas replicated and scaled, but businesses still expect to pay for a service rendered whilst NGOs need funds up-front to get started. It’s all surmountable, but takes unexpected consideration and lateral thinking.

4. Impact and progress measurements vary too. KPIs are not natural for NGOs – trust in shared vision is vital, as is flexibility and open communication. Avoiding misunderstandings in factors from terms of engagement to exit strategies can highlight cultural challenges between sectors, and transparency is essential. And upfront streamlining can minimise administrative load at every level, including reporting from aid recipients.

5. Patience is key, to building collaboration which works effectively, allowing for these differences from the outset. It simply takes longer than it would within one sector or market. Honest and open dialogue -including about what isn’t working and past learning experiences – not only deepens trust but scales impact and effectiveness. These levels of disclosure come less naturally to commercial organisations in competitive markets, but all the contractual protections in the world are nothing without interpersonal integrity and trust between the different actors.

6. Accountability means different things to different organisations – donors are accountable to taxpayers, companies are accountable to shareholders… But these might include the same people, and in a co-creational environment everyone should hold one another accountable. Things will go wrong, but once again it all comes back to trust – the ultimate unifying theme from the diverse panel, concluding on a positive and hopeful note.

We’re already busy getting ready for next year’s event, Business Fights Poverty Oxford 2018, and I’m excited to say that it will be even bigger and better! Over 800 people applied for one of the 300 places we had this year, so next year we have decided to move to a bigger venue – Keble College, Oxford. Find out more and register now for an early bird discount here:

Watch the full video of the Collaboration in Action panel below:

This article incorporates the session summary produced for Business Fights Poverty by Maya Middlemiss.

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