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Overcoming the ‘Collaboration Conundrum’

16 May 2018 at 4:44 pm
Wendy Williams
The Sustainable Development Goals present a unique opportunity for businesses to align their strategy and activities to the needs of society, but it requires effective collaboration between business, government and the not-for-profit sector to achieve this aim, according to a UK expert.

Wendy Williams | 16 May 2018 at 4:44 pm


Overcoming the ‘Collaboration Conundrum’
16 May 2018 at 4:44 pm

The Sustainable Development Goals present a unique opportunity for businesses to align their strategy and activities to the needs of society, but it requires effective collaboration between business, government and the not-for-profit sector to achieve this aim, according to a UK expert.

Neil Davy, the new CEO of Corporate Citizenship, is in Australia to share his insights into how companies can overcome the “collaboration conundrum” and unlock innovative ideas and solutions to deliver value for both business and society.

Speaking at Corporate Citizenship Network events in Melbourne and Sydney this week, Davy discussed the business case, necessary action and example of current best practice in engaging with the SDGs.

He told Pro Bono News the key was bringing government, business and civil society organisations together around a common agenda.

“If we look at the major trends affecting any of our large institutions, whether they’re government, whether they’re business, whether it’s the third sector, a lot of the trends are the same and a lot of the challenges are the same,” Davy said.

“And what we’ve seen for a number of years is these sectoral organisations looking at the same challenges very much in silos.

“I’ve been working to try to bring together government, business and civil society organisations around common agenda items and start to find ways to get them to work together in different ways in order to tackle those issues.”

To explain how a different style of partnership could work Davy, who was previously acting CEO of London-based think tank Tomorrow’s Company, used the example of a charity looking to tackle the issue of clean water.

“A business isn’t going to see that as their purpose. But as a peripheral benefit of their core business activities they may be able to have a positive impact on that agenda,” he said.

“Take a business such as a brewery. They rely on a clean and plentiful supply of water. So you put that business together with an NGO that’s looking to address the issue of water scarcity and clean water and start to think about a different style of partnership and collaboration which links together a common purpose, shared values and a common agenda.

“Rather than thinking about charities trying to engage business with short-term fundraising ‘charity of the year’ stuff, think about long-term strategic partnerships which actually have a transformational change and impact as opposed to short-term tactical collaborations.”

But Davy cautioned that the reality of those kinds of partnerships, particularly when they become multilateral and longer term or when they are international, can be incredibly difficult.

He said while everyone talks about collaboration and there is an assumed knowledge on how to do it, “when the rubber hits the road, it’s not easy”.

“There is a real conundrum there and that’s what we want to highlight and start to unpick,” Davy said.

He highlighted a number of barriers to collaboration, beginning with a lack of recognition of the common interests that exist between the sectors.

“I think that’s what one challenge, just that awareness and recognition of the interdependence and the opportunity as much as the threats,” Davy said.

“The second thing I would say, once that’s been recognised, is the need to start to think very objectively about who potentially we could be partnering with over the longer term, not short-term tactical stuff. And that takes some reflection and some consideration.

“Then once we’ve thought about who those potential partners are, there is a real challenge in understanding each other’s worlds.”

Davy, who has previously worked in international development in Asia, in government organisations and in business, said there was often a lack of understanding of “what it is like to be in the other person’s shoes.”

“In a lot of cases, people have gone into one industry or sector and stayed there. So there are presumptions and assumptions of the other person’s priorities without really knowing it,” he said.

He said breaking down those misconceptions was a “real challenge”, along with language.

“When you go and talk to people in boards and executive teams they don’t talk the language of sustainability. They don’t talk the language of responsible business. They don’t talk the language of shared values. What they talk about is governance, they talk about stewardship and so just the nomenclature itself can be a really clear barrier,” he said.

In the context of the SDGs, which Davy described as “the single biggest opportunity for systemic level change for the world, that we’ve ever had”, he said language could be a roadblock.

“There is a real opportunity with the SDGs … but their ability to get traction has, I guess, been disappointing in some areas and encouraging in others,” he said.

“One aspect comes back to language. If you go and try to talk to a board about the sustainable development goals, unless there is a leader or a leadership team who just intuitively buys into the whole agenda and can see through the language, it’s going to be very, very difficult to get air time with the board to talk about the SDGs.”

Davy said while many board directors recognised the SDGs as massive aspiration goals they did not see how they related to their business.

“Clearly businesses have a real need to tackle many of those issues as part of them having long-term sustainable business models. But again, there’s a gap there that needs to be bridged,” he said.

But he said one of the biggest opportunities when looking through the lens of the SDGs was that if the ambitions laid are achieved, it would be good for business.

“Because healthy communities, healthy economies, healthy environment creates the context for business to thrive and flourish,” he said.

“People in business know it but I think when you put people together collectively there is still a very curious reluctance to discuss or acknowledge it and in turn you go back to business as usual. I think there’s an opportunity there in terms of just taking stock and looking at it afresh.”

Davy also pointed to the erosion of trust that has taken place across all sectors.

He said there was a “huge opportunity” for business in particular, to regain some trust and engage with consumers and target audiences in a “meaningful and importantly an authentic way”.

“This isn’t about greenwash or smokescreens, but engaging them in an authentic way and demonstrating through actions, the business’ real commitment to these agendas and I think that will begin to start to rebuild that trust between our big institutions and society. I think there’s an enormous opportunity and a need to tackle that,” he said.

According to Davy the current state of responsible business globally is incredibly varied.

But he positioned himself as an optimist.

“I do believe that the direction of travel and the momentum that the whole responsible business agenda is gaining is becoming unstoppable,” he said.

“I do believe that there will be a tipping point. But with the scale and speed of disruption affecting all organisations it’s very difficult to predict exactly what it’s going to look like but I do believe we’re going in the right direction. And I just think that there’s a growing momentum behind it which is incredibly encouraging.

“From a business perspective what I see is people in parts of organisations either by seniority or by business function who have never really thought about this agenda starting to weave it into their conversations.”

But he cautioned, “cynically”, that the marketing community had “jumped on the purpose bandwagon” and were still not clear what they mean by it.

“Because purpose is not a mission statement. Purpose is not a vision. It’s a very, very different conversation. It is why the organisation exists beyond making a profit,” Davy said.

“The fact they’re talking about it is fantastic. But there’s still a lot more work to do in terms of really embedding the agenda across businesses, across governments, across the third sector as well in a very meaningful way.”

He said he believed to get traction on the goals it must happen from the ground up.

“I think obviously the global goals are what they say on the tin, they are global,” he said.

“But in terms of the goals getting traction and turning into practical action, yes we need governments to be engaging in these properly and yes we need businesses globally to be engaging with them properly. But the reality is I believe by far the majority of the meaningful change will happen at grassroots up.

“Given the complete lack of trust many people feel in big businesses they’re very sceptical about the messaging which comes out and that’s why I think it has to be demonstrated in practical action otherwise it won’t be considered authentic or meaningful, it’ll just be considered greenwash or smokescreen.”

He said ultimately it was about people.

“And it’s about people doing things to help achieve those goals,” he said.

“There are a number of businesses that are doing fantastic stuff but they are consciously not shouting about it because they’re not out there just to get a greater share of voice.

“They’re doing it because they just think it’s the right thing to do and it’s good for their business and it’s good for the communities and the wider environment.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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