The 2018 Leaders Survey:

The Rise of Multi-Sector Partnerships

By Bron York

This article draws on the results of our recent Leaders Survey report, as well as insights from our expert panel discussion during our recent Americas/EMEA and Asia-Pacfic webinars. Listen to the recordings here and here.

The Globescan-SustainAbility Leaders Survey has been tracking expert perceptions of leadership for over 20 years. Each year we ask experts to rate the performance of institutions on their contribution to progress on sustainable development. This year the survey data showed a rise in perceived performance of multi-sector partnerships and collaborations, a trend that began in 2015. In 2018, multi-sector partnerships are now seen to be more effective in advancing sustainability than research institutions, out-performed only by NGOs and social entrepreneurs.

Approaching today's complex social and ecological challenges – be they local or global – often demands joint work from diverse institutions in both the public and private spheres. The last few years have seen an uplift in collaborative efforts, as businesses, governments and NGOs realise that many of the systemic challenges we are facing require the diverse expertise and resources provided by a variety of different actors. During our Leaders Survey webinar discussions, panelists highlighted a number of reasons as to why awareness is growing of the efficacy of multi-sector partnerships.

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This year the survey data showed a rise in perceived performance of multi-sector partnerships and collaborations, a trend that began in 2015.

Multi-sector partnerships/collaborations and the private sector have seen steady improvement in recent years, while research/academic organizations perceived performance has fallen

Data Chart Taken from The GlobeScan-SustainAbiltiy Survey

Question: How would you rate the performance of each of the following types of organizations in terms of its contribution to progress on sustainable development since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio? Please use a scale where 1 is “poor” and 5 is “excellent”.

Firstly the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have served as a rallying point, bringing together NGOs, social entrepreneurs, companies and governments to develop solutions. However, governments are failing to take full advantage of the opportunities that collaborations offer for advancing sustainable development. Government bureaucracy often moves slowly, placing undue emphasis on convening and building frameworks, rather than achieving practical outcomes. And in some cases, as with the proposed US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, government is simply failing to lead, and the private and non profit sectors are stepping into the gap.

The effectiveness of initiatives such as the #WeAreStillIn movement which brought together mayors, county executives, governors, tribal leaders, college and university leaders, businesses, faith groups, and investors (2800 participants and counting) in support of continued climate action to meet the Paris Agreement, has also helped to raise the profile of multi-sector partnerships.

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NGOs have evolved their approach to working on global issues and collaborating with the private sector to increase impact.

NGOs have evolved their approach to working on global issues and collaborating with the private sector to increase impact. Historically, NGOs limited themselves to a whistle-blower role, naming and shaming companies to draw media attention to an issue. However, over the last fifteen years, NGOs have also evolved to become skilled knowledge providers and trusted advisors in companies’ transition towards more sustainable business models. A great example of this has been the instrumental and collaborative role that NGOs such as WWF, Greenpeace and Environmental Defence Fund have played in engaging global companies and governments on deforestation.

But while NGO and private sector collaboration is maturing, impactful collaboration within and across sectors by companies is still in its infancy. An inspiring example is the recent Global Salmon Initiative where 17 companies have committed to work together, to share data and become globally certified, after the realisation that the reputation of the entire industry was only as good as the worst performer. Another example of promising industry collaboration has been the willingness of the apparel sector to come together and share best practices and innovation through efforts such as The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC).

Collaboration is the future. The challenges we face are too large and too complex to be solved by any single individual actor. But we are only beginning to see the first glimmer of the full potential that multi-sector collaborations and partnerships can achieve in delivering a sustainable future. A lot of work needs to be done to turn this potential into reality. It will require a new level of trust, openness and ambition from all actors.

About the author

Bron York


Bron is one of the co-authors of this year’s Globescan-SustainAbility Leaders Survey. She is also part of SustainAbility’s Research and Trends Team, providing clients with insight into emerging sustainability developments across sectors and geographies.