This blog is the first in a series of interviews on how the private sector contributes to sustainable development through collaboration. It is adapted from a roundtable conversation conducted as research for Private-Sector Collaboration for Sustainable Development, a new report from BSR and The Rockefeller Foundation. 

Dominic Kotas: What is important for you when you consider joining a sustainability collaboration?

Chiel Seinen: For me, it is important that there is clarity. I can only sell it to the top of the house if there is a clear purpose, objective, and timeframe. I need to know when it would be a success, and I need a mandate; otherwise, failure is guaranteed, if you ask me. A clear vision, mission, timeframe, and objectives are 99 percent of the battle.

Moira Oliver: I think you also need to have some clear deliverables in the short, medium, and long term, otherwise people will just see it as a nice idea but with no real practical impact. Is it worth their time and investment if it is not going to deliver some actual impact for their business?

Seinen: I agree. You can of course have an open-ended working group, so to speak, but then at least you need to know what will be delivered, and whether there is a moment to evaluate and potentially exit or disband the collaboration.

Kotas: And what makes collaboration work over time?

Eric Anderson: When I look at potential collaborations, I like to think: Are we covering the ‘why,’ the ‘what,’ and the ‘how’ of this issue? It feels like the ‘why’ is covered if you have a clear purpose, as you mentioned. When it comes to the ‘how,’ as Moira said earlier, the governance is probably the most critical part in ensuring that we can work together.

In terms of the timeframe, I think that the ‘why’ gets you to the starting blocks, and the ‘what’ might get you into the first year. But actually delivering successful outcomes is all down to the ‘how.’

Yukako Kinoshita: The governance is important, I totally agree with what you have said, because I think there is also the issue of competition to resolve. At the end of the day, you will be working with your competitors, and good governance is what resolves that tension; it makes us feel safe working together.

Oliver: In addition, if you do not have a stakeholder in there who everyone regards as key, that can have a real dampening effect. So it depends a little on who you have within that group of early adopters.

Kotas: How does that evolve? Do you want to see a collaboration grow the number of members?

Kinoshita: I think there is a risk that as you gain more members, you lose the action and impact, and the collaboration becomes more of an information exchange platform. When you have a very small group, you have a specific purpose and you can make an impact.

Anderson: Yes, completely. As I mentioned earlier, if you have an emerging issue that you want to lead on and really drive, my belief is that you can have more impact by convening a smaller group that moves independently to a certain point. Then, when you are ready to scale, you will have a strong business case to share.

Oliver: For me there is also growth in terms of the agenda and maturity. Even if an initiative has been running for a long time, what I really want to see is that it adapts and moves on to another level; that it does not just stay static in terms of its agenda.

Kotas: And what are your views on the future of private-sector collaboration?

Kinoshita: I am quite positive because of the SDGs—everybody is talking about them, and you feel like you can collaborate.

Anderson: I think there will be more collaboration in the future, but I think it might be more bespoke, issue-focused collaboration.

Seinen: My vision is that collaboration will be fully integrated into the way we run projects and the way we run business. And I think that while we will collaborate across geographies, not everything needs to be solved at a global level.

Anderson: I agree. We’ll need global perspectives, but the action will be increasingly tailored to local contexts.

To learn more about this topic and the upcoming report, please register for our Sustainability Matters webinar on February 28.