“Partnership” is to relationships what “vanilla” is to ice cream.
It has been so overused, in many cases with no real definition. A previously useful word has fallen prey to what some might call “the jargon curse.”
Much too often the term partnership is deployed in support of a relationship that does not reflect the true intent behind the definition: “A relationship between individuals or groups that is characterized by mutual cooperation and responsibility, as for the achievement of a specified goal.” The key to “partnerships” is mutuality—mutual respect, mutual responsibility, mutual accountability, for a shared goal.
Too often, however, relationships that are actually hierarchical—vendor-supplier or donor-beneficiary—are labeled “partnerships,” without the authentic engagement that recognizes the expertise and capabilities of both organizations to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. At PYXERA Global, where authentic partnership is at the organization’s very core, the apparent trivialization through jargon has been a concern. It was a real pleasure, then, to join a panel at the Commit!Forum in New York City, with Deborah Holmes from EY and Gina Tesla from IBM, to speak about the changing nature of partnerships and how they can evolve from a management construct to a more active, on-going approach to engagement.
Too often, however, relationships that are actually hierarchical—vendor-supplier or donor-beneficiary—are labeled “partnerships,” without the authentic engagement that recognizes the expertise and capabilities of both organizations to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Both EY’s Vantage program and IBM’s Corporate Service Corps are prime examples of programs that engage NGOs with specific expertise in emerging and frontier markets. For its Vantage program, EY partners with Endeavor, a global nonprofit, to find the best and the brightest entrepreneurs in Latin America in need of free consulting assistance from EY associates. Similarly, IBM deploys 500 employees a year through its Corporate Service Corps, providing IBM employees an important leadership development opportunity while simultaneously building the capacity of organizations in growth markets. IBM partners with four NGOs, including PYXERA Global, to identify the best projects and to support the participating employees during their four-week assignments.
Both IBM and EY initially identified the very tactical need for local support “on the ground,” and reached out to organizations that could help. But this quickly developed into more strategic relationships. The two companies highlighted the need for open dialogue between partners, creating a “we” mindset with their partner NGOs, and developing a communication strategy that tells the story of their partnership in a way that speaks to the minds as well as the hearts of stakeholders—both inside and outside the company.
The Joint Initiative for Village Advancement (JIVA) is another example of partnership. Born primarily of a philanthropic engagement with John Deere, the program in rural Rajasthan, India now has a strategic and egalitarian structure in which no one partner is more important than the other—contributing to improvement in agriculture, education and infrastructure in an integrated and impactful manner.
After two days at the Commit!Forum, a theme emerged around partnership. People were eager to restore the term to its original meaning, ensuring that CSR partnerships are strategic, impactful, and, perhaps most importantly, authentic. Sessions such as a plenary between The Nature Conservancy, Unilever, and The Mosaic Company highlighted how their partnership, Field To Market® brings together the many stakeholders in an agricultural value chain, including the conservation community, to identify strategies for improving the supply chain across the sector and limiting waste. In the not-so-distant past, a partnership between a major conservation organization and a fertilizer company would have been unthinkable. Yet, these are the very partnerships that will drive solutions to complex challenges, such as feeding the world’s seven billion people while maintaining the sanctity of the world’s ecosystem.
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Authenticity, however, is not limited to describing partnership. It also describes reputation, and in this regard, CVS Health was the highlight of this year’s Forum. President and CEO Larry Merlo discussed the company’s decision to stop selling tobacco products in their retail stores, a decision that could potentially cost them $2 billion in revenue. How much is a mission worth? CVS decided: about $2 billion.
CVS is dedicated to providing an integrated approach to healthcare for the American consumer and selling tobacco products was in direct conflict with that goal. As an integral part of many communities and the first, and sometimes only, access to healthcare professionals that many people have, CVS made a strategic—perhaps even heroic—decision to authentically live into their values. There is no finer example of corporate social responsibility than putting the health of your customers ahead of the health of your bottom line.
In today’s hyper-connected world, where consumers have more choices than ever before and loyalty is defined by Sunday’s coupon circulator, being authentically engaged in the community can make the difference between positive and negative earnings reports. It is no longer enough for companies to simply donate to a cause; rather they must contribute to a cause in an authentic way. Such a contribution can manifest itself in myriad ways: through the expertise of their employees, as companies like EY and IBM have done, or through a partnership that can mutually create and implement a joint vision like PYXERA Global and John Deere. When companies ensure that their core business decisions reflect their mission, they embrace the opportunity to demonstrate how authentic partnership can move off the jargon bandwagon and into the real world.
Amanda MacArthur is the Vice President of Global Pro Bono and Engagement at PYXERA Global where she leads the organization’s Global Pro Bono and MBAs Without Borders programs, as well as the Center for Citizen Diplomacy. In this capacity, Amanda designs and implements corporate social responsibility programs for the public and private sector focused on skills-based volunteerism in emerging markets, leadership development, and sustainable economic impact. Most recently, Amanda played a key role in designing IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, while overseeing Global Pro Bono programs for PepsiCo, Pfizer, FedEx, and several others.