What If They Mean It?

Sustainable LeadershipLeadership StrategiesCulture RiskSustainabilitySustainability OfficersCulture AnalyticsDevelopment and Transition
min Article
August 09, 2021
8 min
Sustainable LeadershipLeadership StrategiesCulture RiskSustainabilitySustainability OfficersCulture AnalyticsDevelopment and Transition
Recent changes in attitudes towards sustainability have prompted many social sector leaders to ask: What if they (i.e. companies) mean it this time?



Meeting the vital aims of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 will require greater cooperation and collaboration between the commercial and social impact sectors. To fully realize the benefits of such partnerships, organizations and leaders from both sides must go beyond the traditional philanthropic model to leverage the unique culture and capabilities that each side brings to the effort to create a shared value model.

Past partnership commitments have led to few meaningful results. Recent changes in attitudes towards sustainability and corporate responsibility have prompted many social sector leaders to ask: What if they (i.e. companies) mean it this time? And if so, how can social sector organizations capitalize on this moment to drive real change?

It is our belief that there is a serious and genuine commitment from the commercial world to act on social issues and partner with the social sector. To make these collaborations effective, social impact organizations require to establish internally a clear value proposition with specific partnership outcomes and leadership skills.

The disruptive events of 2020 – most notably the COVID-19 pandemic and movement for racial justice – have intensified pressures for social change. They demonstrated the interconnectedness of supply chains and corporate ecosystems, and forced corporations to take into account activities and consequences that fall outside their (physical or symbolic) “four walls.” This has resulted in multiple visible forms of corporate commitment: 78% of companies now report on their progress against the SDGs1, and more than 9,500 companies have signed on to the principles of the United Nations Global Compact2, the UN body tasked with promoting private sector engagement with the SDGs.

Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA) set out to analyze the challenges and opportunities for effective corporate- social sector partnerships, gathering evidence through interviews with 14 expert leaders, including Chief Executive Officers of global NGOs, public sector officials, and partnerships professionals. These perspectives were complemented by RRA’s own insights based on more than 30 years of experience as leadership advisors to top social sector organizations, many of whom manage corporate partnerships as a key pillar of their operating models.

“A successful development agenda requires inclusive partnerships — at the global, regional, national and local levels — built upon principles and values, and upon a shared vision and shared goals placing people and the planet at the center.” - SDG #17

While their motivations may differ from those of social sector organizations, private companies have significant value to add to partnerships and should be viewed as critical players in the achievement of the SDGs.

While specific capabilities will vary by partnership, private companies and social sector organizations have much to gain from each other:

What the private sector contributes to partnerships

  • Digital innovation and tech resources 

  • Supply chain and logistics models 

  • Customer intimacy and market insights

What the social sector contributes to partnerships

  • Networks and connectivity in the field

  • Understanding of needs of communities on the ground

  • Credibility and trust to deliver social value

Although partnerships today are often constrained by cultural and structural barriers, there are concrete steps social sector organizations can take to maximize the value and impact of these alliances. By promoting a cultural mindset that values the capabilities that both sides bring to the partnership and ensuring that both are aligned around a clear value proposition, partnerships can transcend the traditional funder-grantee relationship and create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Making partnerships win-win

While the interest and flow of resources into partnerships has increased, it is not yet clear that the social sector is prepared effectively to absorb them. Partnerships to date have typically been subscale and have not delivered intended value for either side. Most follow a more traditional philanthropic model, whereby the commercial partner underwrites the programming that is delivered by the social sector partner but is rarely involved in setting strategy or shaping the program itself. Such dynamics have often led to frustration on both sides: social sector organizations may have qualms about enabling “greenwashing” of corporate reputations, and companies are unlikely to realize returns on their brand equity if their contribution is viewed as simply writing a check. Moreover, other stakeholders are no longer convinced by token gestures.

Yet this is perhaps the most critical moment for both sides to “get it right”. Without effective partnerships between the social and private sectors, the SDGs will not be met. Failure to establish successful partnerships may result in commercial organizations determining that they can meet their SDG obligations alone. This misses an opportunity to address these challenges comprehensively. Creating partnerships is not simply an act of self-preservation for the social sector, it is about creating legitimate solutions to specific challenges’ instead of “creating a legitimate solution to a specific challenge.

“We are in a unique moment to seize more opportunities for partnership between the business and social sectors but need to ensure that both sectors are fully equipped to do so. […] We need less competition and more collaboration, for ultimately we have many of the same objectives and constituencies.” - Sanda Ojiambo, Executive Director, United Nations Global Compact

To date, corporate partnerships have been undermined by a wide range of cultural and structural barriers:


The components of effective partnerships

To overcome cultural and structural barriers, organizations need to identify their unique differentiators and comparative advantages in addressing social problems; determine which potential partners possess the skills, expertise or networks to complement their own; and articulate the specific benefits that can be achieved by combining these forces. Effective partnerships therefore require three key components:

01. Organizational culture that recognizes the value of corporate-social sector partnerships

02. Complementary capabilities that combine the distinct strengths of each partner

03. Clear understanding of the value proposition for both parties


Catalyzing a culture shift

The first and perhaps most important of these components is the establishment of an organizational culture that recognizes the value of partnerships. Historically, the dynamic between the commercial and social sectors has been characterized by mistrust and a transactional approach.

As companies increasingly view sustainability and social value creation as core to their organizational purpose, their motivations for pursuing partnerships have also evolved. Many companies have demonstrated a genuine commitment to achieving social change not in spite of but because of their profit motivation. Social sector organizations must encourage a culture that recognizes this shift (when warranted) and views such corporations as true partners. Effective partnerships require trust between equals.

Social sector leaders can encourage this cultural shift through a number of actions:

  • Foster a culture of trust and positivity towards partnerships by clearly articulating the benefits of partnerships at a strategic – rather than monetary – level

  • Embed governance mechanisms to monitor, evaluate and learn from partnership successes and failures – this may include adding a review of partnerships to board meeting agendas or appointing independent board members to help ensure accountability

  • Hold board members and executives accountable for successes and failures, and take action against misconduct if necessary (do they mean it?)

Moving toward a capabilities

Such cultural shifts will be further aided by adopting a capabilities orientation to partnerships. In contrast to a transactional orientation (which focuses on receiving monetary support), a capabilities approach means organizations assess partnership opportunities as joint ventures. Each party brings assets and capabilities which they deploy together to reach a shared goal.

This approach requires the social sector organization to take an honest and critical view of its own differentiators, and to ask two questions: What capabilities do we have to offer a corporate partner? And what capabilities are we lacking that may be supplied by a corporate partner? Asymmetry between the two sides can be bridged by a “two-way” exchange that brings value to both parties:

  • Social impact organizations tend to develop leaders with expertise in multi-stakeholder management and inclusion, and strong geopolitical analysis skills;

  • Commercial organizations typically have strong project management functions and performance management

A talent exchange (i.e., hiring leaders with background for commercial sector into social impact organizations and vice versa), would then be beneficial to both sides and enhanced by reviewing the capabilities possessed by both individual team members and the organization as a whole. The organizations would then identify opportunities where partnerships can facilitate two-way skills transfer. The case studies in the following pages highlight “capability exchanges” engineered by some of the most effective corporate-social sector partnerships.

Clarifying the value proposition

Once a culture and capability shift has occurred, both parties will be better positioned to engage the third and final component of effective partnerships: the articulation of a clear value proposition. Partnerships can take many forms, ranging from a macro level focus on policy development and normative standard-setting to a micro level role as on-the-ground agents of program delivery. Social impact organizations may engage in partnerships that have them serving multiple roles across this spectrum and should not see themselves as limited to serving only one role (as exemplified by the World Wildlife Fund’s role as both broker/connector and agent of delivery in different contexts). But any individual partnership will benefit by clarifying the specific role to be played by each party, and a transparent articulation of the benefits that are expected to accrue to both.


This articulation is particularly important given the differing – but not contradictory – motivations for partnership held by each party. By engaging in frank and honest dialogue as to what each party stands to gain from the partnership, many of the cultural barriers to effective partnership will be diminished and trust can flourish. When partners are clear about their value proposition, and confident in the cultural and capability structures, they are successful in delivering the impact they intend. We highlight a few such examples of effective collaborations below.

Examples Of Successful Partnerships

The COVAX Facility


Culture of collaboration with multiple stakeholders and achievement made possible at scale and speed thanks to capitalization of resources of each partner.


Coordinated by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the WHO, COVAX brings together governments, global health organizations, manufacturers, scientists, private sector, civil society and philanthropy, to procure and deliver 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine to low and middle income countries in 2021. Corporate involvement includes drug development by big pharma companies, and financial oversight by Citibank.

Value proposition

The COVAX facility is a product development and catalytic funder alliance, supporting fundraising, production and delivery of vaccines for equitable access.

“Companies want to help on many endeavors, but I want to focus them back to what they are best at.” - Aurélia Nguyen, Managing Director Vaccines and Sustainability and Managing Director of the COVAX Facility at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance

International Rescue Committee/Airbnb Open Homes: Refugee Housing


Innovation, engagement from key stakeholders and shared experiences underpinning partnerships.


Since 2017, the IRC has deployed Airbnb housing credits across the US and Europe to refugees and other displaced populations. Temporary housing through Airbnb allows the IRC to provide safe and supportive spaces for clients so they have a place to rest and more easily receive services from nearby IRC’s offices.

Value proposition

IRC acts as an agent of delivery through its services, receiving infrastructure from AirBnB; which in turn gains improvement of brand equity and recognition in wider communities.

“Our strongest private sector partnerships include organizations where there is a culture of genuine commitment to making transformational change, constant innovation that excites our partners and drives our impact, and engaged employees with an affinity to share their own expertise, time, voice, and giving towards causes they care about.” -  Zain Habboo, Chief Marketing and Mobilization Officer, International Rescue Committee International

World Wildlife Fund Climate Business Network


Recognition of value in the commercial’s world ability to bring peers onboard.


WWF Climate Business Network supports businesses on their path to align with a 1.5°C world and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The Network allows WWF partner companies from around the world to connect and engage with other business leaders and WWF experts to gain the knowledge and guidance needed to take credible, ambitious climate action.

Value proposition

As broker and mobilizer of the Climate Business Network, WWF connects like-minded partners and enables climate change goals; corporate partners in turn receive access to other corporations and tools that can support them in their sustainability journey.
“Partnerships with private sector organizations are about driving together a much-needed transition towards environmentally sustainable practices towards a carbon-neutral, nature-positive and equitable future.”  - Marco Lambertini, Director General, World Wildlife Fund 

Building partnership muscles

Once social impact organizations recognize and internalize the changes in intention from the private sector, they can take concrete steps to adapt and leverage their culture and capability for successful partnerships.

However, structure and process alone do not guarantee effective collaboration. Partnerships will benefit from having leaders who understand the shift that has happened and can bridge the gap between the two worlds. RRA’s Sustainable Leader model, created in partnership with the United Nations Global Compact, highlights the specific mindset and competencies that differentiate sustainable leaders.

Social impact leaders who have driven effective private sector partnerships are marked by their pragmatic idealist mindset: the belief that multi-sectoral partnerships are vital to the achievement of the SDGs, and that social and commercial motivations for partnerships are not zero sum. This mindset is activated by four differentiating leadership attributes:


Organizations pursuing specific value propositions may also benefit from prioritizing specific leadership attributes based on their needs. For example, organizations that see themselves as uniquely positioned to serve as effective brokers/ connectors might prioritize building their capacity for multilevel systems thinking in order to better identify how various players in the ecosystem are related, and therefore where a broker is most needed. Similarly, an organization that is uniquely positioned to be an agent of delivery should ensure that it has strong capacity for disruptive innovation to identify new products or services that respond to stakeholder needs. Importantly, the attributes of a pragmatic-idealistic leader can be acquired by the organization via the hiring of new leadership talent or by developing the skill base of the existing leadership team through targeted training and developmental opportunities.

Final Considerations

No single entity, initiative, or sector can achieve true sustainable development alone; partnerships between the social and private sector are the only way in which the SDGs will be met. Recognizing the recent shift in corporate intent (“they mean it!”) will be the first step in achieving true collaboration, moving partnerships from the transactional to win-win cooperation.

Our recommendations for social impact organizations embarking on corporate partnerships are summarized as follows:

Establish a pro-partnerships culture

  • A cultural shift that recognizes the mutual benefits of partnership and fosters trust (where earned) towards commercial partners is imperative

Focus on strengths

  • A capabilities orientation that recognizes the comparative advantages of each side will maximize partnership impact

Be clear and specific

  • A clear value proposition underpins successful collaborations and ensures that decision-making stays focused on maximum impact rather than individual organizational needs

Partnerships will also benefit from leaders whose core competencies are underpinned by a pragmatic-idealist mindset, with the ability to bridge the divide across sectors. Social sector leaders who are able to effectively absorb private sector resources and capabilities (and vice versa) for delivery of positive social and environmental impact will be key drivers in achieving the 2030 development agenda set out by the SDGs.

Additional Authors

Vanessa Di Matteo is a member of the Knowledge team for Russell Reynolds Associates’ Social Impact and Education. She is based in London.
Emily Meneer leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Social Impact and Education sector Knowledge team. She is based in Portland.


Business and the SDGs: A survey of WBCSD members and Global Network partners PowerPoint Presentation (wbcsd.org)
What’s the Commitment? | UN Global Compact


With thanks to the kind contributions of Tom Handcock, Russell Reynolds Associates Global Head of Knowledge Management, and the partnerships practitioners who provided invaluable perspective to this study:

  • Aurélia Nguyen, Managing Director Vaccines and Sustainability and Managing Director of the COVAX Facility at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance

  • Chris Mitchell, Managing Director & Partner at Boston Consulting Group

  • Dominic O’Neill, Chief Operating Officer at World Wildlife Fund

  • Jeremy Oppenheim, Partner at SYSTEMIQ

  • Katrina Boratko, Head of Open Homes Program at AirBnB

  • Kavita Prakash-Mani, Global Conservation Director at World Wildlife Fund

  • Marco Lambertini, Director General at World Wildlife Fund

  • Michael Anderson, Chief Executive Officer at MedAccess

  • Prerana Issar, Chief People Officer, National Health Service; former Chief Human Resource Officer, World Food Programme

  • Sanda Ojiambo, Executive Director at United Nations Global Compact

  • Sanjeev Ghandi, Co-Founder and Partner at Mitchell Ghandi LLP

  • Stephen Brown, Vice President of Global Partnerships at Global Citizen

  • Thomas Debass, Managing Director, Partnerships at US Department of State

  • Zain Habbo, Chief Marketing and Mobilization Officer at International Rescue Committee