Partnerships: why asking ‘What’s in It for Me?’ will matter more than ever in a post-COVID world

If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is that purpose-driven partnerships can be convened at scale, at pace and with terrific effectiveness when the will […]

If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is that purpose-driven partnerships can be convened at scale, at pace and with terrific effectiveness when the will is there. The UK Ventilator Challenge has seen a cross-sector effort almost double the number of ventilators available to the NHS, while consumer goods company Unilever recently partnered with academics and the UK government to launch a global hand washing campaign to a billion people.

But when this crisis is behind us, will partnerships continue to sit high on the corporate agenda? In the absence of an immediate public health threat, will the imperative be lost, or the business value of partnerships be overlooked? It’s unlikely. COVID-19 has not just shown the efficacy of partnerships from a public good perspective. The collateral damage of the pandemic has also shown the significant commercial incentive businesses have to prevent future threats from emerging. Increasingly, businesses will need to enter partnership discussions with a far tighter answer to a key question: “what’s in it for me?”

As this blog argued recently, the pandemic, rather than reinventing the way we do things, in reality has accelerated trends and changes that were already in motion. It’s shone a light on the fact that partnerships now aren’t a question of “why should I?” for brands, but one of “why wouldn’t I?”

If every government in the world were to meet the UN’s target of contributing 0.7% of their annual economic output to international aid efforts, we would still find ourselves more than $2.5 trillion short of the funding required each year to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

By comparison, the total market value of the 500 biggest listed companies in the United States at the time of writing sits just below $25 trillion: more than twice the size of the US economy; nearly 4,000 times the size of the average emerging market economy excluding China. Clearly, the private sector has a significant role to play in generating the social and environmental impact required to meet the SDGs.

But this effort needn’t be seen simply as charity, or corporate social responsibility. The fragility of our environment and ecosystems – the disruption of which is now understood to have caused the outbreak in the first place – the inequity and structural flaws of our economy, and ultimately the damage to many of the businesses who relied on them all show that the prevention of future threats isn’t only the right thing to do; it just makes business sense.

So the question is less one of whether brands will engage in partnerships when this disruption passes, but rather one of how they will make a success of them, and in doing so de-risk their own futures while contributing to global efforts to meet future challenges head on.

The challenge for brands who understand the long-term incentive of contributing to these global efforts through partnerships will be in finding a way to do it that is sustainable for them as revenue-generating entities; a way to balance their duty to deliver shareholder value against the long-term risk of ignoring their social and environmental responsibilities.

The old notion of a partnership that sees a business opening its chequebook to fund an NGO then walking away has rightly been dismissed as largely reputationally driven, and ultimately unsustainable. In fact, the partnerships that are resilient and most impactful are those that understood that a balance must be struck that sees all stakeholders benefit.

Post-COVID-19, there will be a greater need for partnership opportunities to demonstrate value to all stakeholders: from corporate and public partners, through to employees, shareholders and end beneficiaries. Only this will see sustainable corporate involvement in partnership models that are embedded deeply in businesses’ day-to-day operations.

Engaging in partnerships to address social or environmental challenges can uncover value in a number of ways. Often, interactions with NGOs, civil society, or impact enterprise co-partners can expose a business to innovations and alternative ways of thinking that it would otherwise not have discovered. Similarly, partnerships with a global reach can represent effective new distribution channels for products or services that complement or enable the impact objectives of a programme. Remember that the one billion people reached through soap brand Lifebuoy’s handwashing campaigns created life-saving habits while simultaneously increasing demand for the soap that makes this possible.

The COVID-19 pandemic will for some encourage and for many force the issue of partnerships for brands and businesses, drawing a clear thread between the long-term benefits of a safer and more sustainable world for all, and a de-risked and resilient future for the businesses who contribute positively to it.

As the emergence of multilateral partnerships, accelerated by the pandemic, continues to develop, the brands that make the best of this opportunity – and in doing so create the most impactful and long-term collaborations – will be the ones who aren’t afraid to ask the question: ‘what’s in it for me?’