Three things we need to build strong partnerships for the SDGs

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals requires collective action but our approach to working together needs to reflect the way that sectors have, and are, evolving. Emily Auckland explains. 

The beauty of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is their ability to unite people and organisations around a common cause. This might be as specific as a single target – like the work of the Champions 12.3 initiative - or as broad as the vision the entire agenda presents.

Partnerships feature heavily in Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – the United Nations agreement which contains the SDGs. Not only are they an ambition through Goal 17 but they are one of the P’s that underpin the entire agenda (people, planet, peace, prosperity and partnerships). There’s a very important reason for this – systemic challenges need collective, joined-up action. It is the interconnectedness of the world we live in that demands we work together, particularly when the systems we rely on for life are under threat.

In the spirit of partnerships and collaboration we set up UKSSD. But partnership working needs to evolve if we’re to succeed. It needs to reflect the way that sectors and the organisations within them are evolving.

A prime example is the shift towards business with “purpose”, or “shared values”. A business that has developed a strategy that places values at its core can easily see the benefits in partnership initiatives beyond market opportunities or reputation gain. They understand that by working with others they have more chance of overcoming challenges that are beyond their immediate influence but which are crucial to their organisation.

Likewise, charities are increasingly adopting more entrepreneurial approaches to their work. My own organisation, Bioregional, has always talked of itself as a charity and social enterprise and has created several successful spin-off companies in its 20-year history. Charities are closer to the problem they are seeking to resolve, this enables them to develop innovative solutions that really work. The rise in organisations joining the B-Corp movement is evidence of a merging of traditional charitable and business models.

As the lines continue to blur and merge between sectors, organisations and their way of working, we need to focus our energy on getting our foundations right if we’re to create the partnerships and collaborative action needed to deliver the SDGs that reflect these changes.

Building our foundations

1. It’s time to be open-minded

As I’ve suggested above, there is a perception that certain types of organisation are motivated and operate in a certain way. This inevitably results in assumptions about the role they will play and the value of their involvement in a partnership. We need to lose these perceptions and be open-minded about what organisations can offer and why. When we’re open-minded we give others room to contribute in a way that demonstrates their value – and we might just be surprised by the result!  

2. In honour of diversity and inclusion

Sometimes we need to step outside of the box. Whether the box we create surrounds our own specific role and way of working, or what we think the answer is, or our industry or profession. When we welcome diverse views and expertise in a conversation in an openminded way we also create an environment that challenges us to think outside of the box and break down silos.

Inclusion matters. Inclusion is not the same as equality. Inclusion is a process by which one becomes equal. We can all be responsible for inclusion by ensuring we listen, hear and recognise others. We can also ensure that others include, by highlighting when they don’t.

To create the sort of partnerships that are needed to challenge systemic issues we need to move out of silos, welcome a range of actors and we need to do our best to include everyone in the conversation.

3. Drop your guard

When you start to build relationships between organisations you also need to understand your own behaviour – as an individual and as an entity. There will always be a power dynamic when people interact, but battling through a meeting because there isn’t enough trust to be open and honest is painful for everyone. One of the reasons partnership processes often start with ‘expectations’ is because sharing this helps to build trust and understanding. When we trust and understand, we can also empathise, which helps us to accommodate the needs of others.

If we try to build trust from the beginning, navigating difficult situations within the partnership will be easier. That means we must choose to be open from the start.

Creating new partnerships, the UKSSD way

We’re constantly learning in UKSSD and the SDGs are the perfect mechanism to build common purpose and shared understanding within new partnerships.

When we met with partners to discuss our new strategy, finding ways to work together featured high on the agenda. We had a whole workshop group focused on developing new partnerships both within and outside of the network.

We’ll be using our learning to make sure these have strong foundations. Foundations based on openness, diversity and inclusion, and trust.