Five Lessons in Partnership That Can Advance the Sustainable Development Goals

This November, PYXERA Global convenes the Global Engagement Forum in Washington DC, bringing together leaders and innovators to discuss how cross-sector collaboration and partnership can effectively and sustainably advance the Sustainable Development Goals. Over the past 25 years, PYXERA Global has learned that effective partnership has its challenges. Here are six lessons from the partnership pros to help build meaningful dialogue as governments, companies, and social sector partners come together this fall to build a pathway to advancing the Global Goals.

  1. Ask the Hard Questions, and Start With “So What”?

Last year, Deirdre White, the CEO of PYXERA Global, called on those developing partnerships to address global problems to ask hard questions, and to not shy away from asking “So What?” when it comes to evaluating the value of partnership. “The challenges that face the world today are often simply categorized,” said White. “Education, health, water, nutrition, poverty, security; too often, leaders evaluate these issues in a vacuum, in no small part because funding for programming to address these challenges tends to be stove-piped,” she explained.

White argues it’s often more feasible to track the “whys” and “hows” of a project, while getting to the root of why the project or partnership is formed—the “so what?”—can be a lot more elusive. When confronting the question, “So what?” says White, “Answering isn’t easy, it’s often uncomfortable, and it sometimes leads to the conclusion that the execution of a given plan may do, or did, more harm than good.”

White’s first lesson in effective partnership is simple:

“In collectively seeking to build a better world, I challenge all of us to be courageous enough to more often ask ourselves, and one another, ‘so what?’”

  1. Be Honest and Open

Amanda MacArthur, the Vice President of Global Pro Bono at PYXERA Global, has extensive experience working among governments, corporations, and non-profits to develop effective partnerships. “Partnerships work because each party brings something to the table. It’s important to respect these strengths for what they are and to recognize where one party excels or another falls short.” Developing this kind of clarity of purpose requires open communication among partners, who can’t shy away from debate and disagreement to arrive at an arrangement that makes use of sense for everyone involved. MacArthur quotes Gina Tesla, the Director of Corporate Citizenship Initiatives at IBM who said, “Innovation and great ideas do not always come from agreement.” More often, they come from open and honest dialogue.

“Making your partner a true partner,” says MacArthur, “requires humility, candor, and above all else, trust.”

  1. Start Small, Grow Big

In seeking to develop partnerships to drive meaningful impact, those in the field of international development often try to think at scale. The SDGs are in some ways a prime example, beginning with Goal #1: “Eliminate poverty in all its forms everywhere.” White argues, “The best ideas start small,” calling attention to the MIT Ideas Challenge and the HULT Prize as prime examples of incubated innovations that started small, with the potential to scale.

“Most of the highly impactful and innovative programming in place today,” says White, “is seen in small-size projects limited to one or two geographies, and usually not funded by the traditional donors.” She encourages donor agencies, like USAID, DfID, the World Bank, and even private foundations, like Rockefeller and Ford, to consider ways they can help take those proven innovations to scale.

“Imagine how that picture could change,” said White, “if even a portion of USAID, DfID, World Bank, and private-foundation funding were dedicated to identifying such innovations, fostering their growth, and scaling their impact.”

By seeking out effective innovations that start small, and developing partnerships to expand them to scale, perhaps the development community can make effective progress towards the ambitious goals set forth in the SDGs.

  1. Don’t Hide Your Mistakes

Last fall, the United Nations began an open dialogue about the Sustainable Development Goals, the universal targets that will guide the efforts of the development community over the next fifteen years. Leading up to this point, the UN put significant emphasis on the effectiveness of the Millennium Development Goals, which sunset this year, in driving a great deal of progress since their launch in 20005. It became clear, however, that many of the achievements the UN so proudly showcased—lifting 700 million people out of poverty, reducing the number of underweight children worldwide by half, for example—were actually based on baseline data from 1990, not 2000, when the goals were first introduced.

After the September 2014 UN General Assembly meeting, White wrote in these pages, cautioning against the danger of victory laps. “Claiming achievement even where the progress slowed after the enactment of the MDGs,” said White, “is not only intellectually dishonest, it’s not helpful in planning forward.” White encouraged the UN and others to prioritize research and data analysis, in assessing the impact of the SDGs. She also encouraged development partners to embrace a whole-systems approach, and to not shy away from discussing what works and what doesn’t. “The paucity of collaboration, or even conversation, across divisions within the same agency,” White explains, “hinders the ability to analyze and learn from one another.”

White encourages the development community to rigorously test its successes, and not shy away from acknowledging mistakes, in order to make meaningful progress against the Sustainable Development Goals:

“With a commitment to testing, documenting, and sharing success and failure,” she hopes “the next decade of UN General Assembly weeks can become an opportunity to learn, grow, and innovate as much as to celebrate the great work this community has achieved together.”

  1. Engage Together, With Purpose

At the Fifth Annual International Corporate Volunteerism Conference last spring, White spoke to those convened about the challenges of changing the status quo in international development. Today, many organizations operate with a planning mindset, focusing more on what they are doing to help others rather than what partners can achieve together. “It takes courage to engage and to find out what is really needed, versus what you want to give,” said White, encouraging the audience to embrace the notion of purposeful global engagement.

“It takes courage to forge a true partnership. It takes compromise. It takes respect for one another’s goals, experiences, knowledge, processes, and approaches. … It takes courage, if you are a donor institution or an NGO, to accept that your private sector partner has a goal, even an obligation, to drive business value that is to ultimately profit from this work. And that is a valid goal, and should be embraced as part of the partnership.”

White challenged those convened, “to do more to instill courage in others; to do more to change mindsets regarding partnership and mutual benefit; to do more to share the importance of process change; to do more to get other companies to follow your example.”

Will you join us in rising to the challenge? The New Global Citizen is proud to be a media partner for the Global Engagement Forum. Register today on Eventbrite to take advantage of early bird prices through September 30, 2015 to be a part of this exciting event. Join the conversation on Twitter at #SDGforum.

Alicia Ness

Alicia Bonner Ness

Alicia Bonner Ness (@AliciaBNess) is the editor of the The New Global Citizen, where she seeks to showcase the impact of beneficiaries and implementers alike, empowering all those engaged in furthering social good to learn from one another. She is also the Communications Manager at PYXERA Global.

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