A revolution in development partnerships

Last week, UNICEF and LIXIL Corporation launched a new partnership: Make a Splash: Toilets for All, committing to employ innovative methods to address the global sanitation crisis. This is not your typical corporate – NGO partnership. It represents a new way of working for both organisations and indeed for the business and development sectors more generally. As the agency partner responsible for facilitating the initial workshops and devising the partnership approach, MullenLowe salt were able to use experience of setting up partnerships for brands like Lifebuoy, Domestos and Andrex, making sure that this relationship would stand out for all the right reasons, going above and beyond anything attempted before.

Corporate-charity partnerships do not always present clear opportunities for shared success. Such relationships have come under fire lately. Increasingly regarded as marketing maneuvers rather than activities motivated by genuine social conscience, a charity’s logo on the pack of a product won’t cut it anymore. Similarly, in the wake of recent charity scandals, leading corporate sponsors have had to rethink their commitments. In this context, what shape should partnerships take in the future?

The new deal between UNICEF and LIXIL goes beyond superficialities. The partners are leveraging their skills to accelerate the development of markets for sanitation products, aiming to stop the health-threatening practice of open defecation. In the process, both parties achieve their objectives – improving lives for children, while developing competitive sanitation markets. Deservedly, the launch was greeted with a flurry of coverage across global and regional news, business and sustainability press. This coverage in part vindicates that the partners are taking a bold approach. The next step is showing that this can work, delivering impact and sharing learnings along the way. Making a real difference to the lives of the people it is designed to help.

Both parties obviously have a clear interest in this working. But the world needs it to work too. The UN has called for more of such shared value partnerships, arguing that they are essential if the world is to meet the Sustainable Development Goal targets by the 2030 deadline. Early indications suggest that without greater effort, leadership, and similar partnerships, many will be widely missed. Such shared value relationships are much talked about but rarely realised. So, what should you bear in mind when building one of your own?

  1. Organisations must have a shared mission and values

This may sound obvious, but if the partners are not working towards the same goal, it’s unlikely that either will get what they want. Being transparent about what you want to achieve and what you can commit is essential to success. It’s the same with values and culture. You can’t force a fit where there is none, and different ways of working can be a barrier to even the best-willed relationship.

Working towards a shared goal takes time and patience. It’s the task that tests us as a moderator the most. But doing this helps to build trust, as all parties agree on the ultimate objective and can co-create a mutually satisfactory approach to get there. LIXIL and UNICEF both have a vested interest in achieving their goal, so they can trust each other in committing the necessary resource to meeting them.

  1. Partners must play to their strengths

This is important for two reasons. Clearly, organisations should only want to partner with those that can do something better then themselves, and where they can play to their own strengths. This is where true shared value is created.

On the flip side, if one of the partners can’t do what it does best, it will feel that its resources aren’t being put to good use, and may choose to take these somewhere they would be better appreciated. It’s important to bear this in mind before jumping into something that sounds good in principle, but in practice does not play into an organisations strategic priorities.

  1. Honest communication is essential for any relationship

The success of a commercial partnership, like a human relationship, relies on honest, transparent communication. This shouldn’t be a surprise – partnerships are made by the people running them – though often the understanding of this in principle does not translate into practice. It’s essential, in our experience, that partners meet face-to-face to get to know each other before jumping into anything that would be tricky, expensive or embarrassing to get out of. On-going effort must be made. This will help to keep everyone aligned and maintain the energy needed to power a successful, impactful partnership.

This UNICEF-LIXIL relationship presents a blueprint for other organisations to follow in creating their own impactful partnership to catalyse social change and long-term business sustainability. Partnerships that do well by doing good will play an essential role in solving the world’s most pressing challenges.