• Partnerships need to be time and location-relevant, using local knowledge and expertise to tackle specific challenges;
  • They should combine a breadth of complementary capabilities from a number of sectors to be effective;
  • Lessons learned must be openly available, shared with other organizations and inspire replica models.

In 2020, partnerships proved to be a powerful way to mount responses to COVID-19. The World Economic Forum’s COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs is a case in point and shows the potential generated when organizations support impact enterprises.

At Unilever, we are proud to be a member of the Alliance alongside EY, bringing our experience in creating strong partnerships through TRANSFORM, a joint initiative with the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and EY, which delivers market-based solutions to the world’s biggest development challenges by supporting impact enterprises.

At the end of 2020, we broadened our efforts by launching TRANSFORM Survive & Thrive, an open-source platform that supports early-stage and growth-stage impact enterprises in low and middle-income countries that are at risk of failure owing to COVID-19 disruption.

Since the inception of TRANSFORM in 2015, we have been constantly learning and evolving, gaining a deeper understanding of what does and doesn’t work for partnerships. Here are three critical pillars that will set up any partnership for success:

1. Player-first thinking: keep things relevant

Partnerships need to be time and location-relevant, using local knowledge and expertise to tackle specific challenges. Rather than global corporations parachuting in solutions, interventions should be built around the specific needs of the end consumer.

Working with local impact enterprises is one of the most effective and sustainable routes to doing this. Beyond the long-term value of these enterprises to solving the SDGs, their innovation, local know-how and presence mean they are also crucial in enabling vulnerable communities to successfully emerge from the COVID-19 crisis.

Yet, the economic and social disruption of COVID-19 has put an entire generation of impact enterprises at risk. TRANSFORM Survive & Thrive shares tools and resources, fosters collaboration and extends our remit to other enterprises tackling the crisis while bolstering the support for those we already work with.

COVID-19 Social Enterprise Action Agenda
The COVID-19 social enterprise action agenda
Image: COVID-19 Action Agenda Leaders on the Front Line, World Economic Forum

2. Combine multiple expertise

Partnerships that fuse a breadth of complementary capabilities from a number of sectors will be most effective. By using one central platform, TRANSFORM Survive & Thrive aims to provide a one-stop-shop that brings different capabilities, expertise, and partnerships together.

We’re actively seeking additional organizations – including public, private and non-profit partners – to join us and further extend its potential by contributing their own offering, whether through convening and scaling power for projects, access to networks and partnerships, tools and resources; or the provision of essential products and services.

Combining multiple, sector-leading and, therefore, deeply effective contributions produces both breadth and depth of knowledge. Crucially, bringing together expertise from different industries means that partnerships can deliver interventions and solutions that would be impossible for a single organization.

3. Make lessons open-source

Open-sourcing lessons and providing uninhibited access to these is critical. Doing so ensures that what has been learned can be shared across organizations and sectors and that models can be replicated and improved. Ultimately, this will amplify your impact.

Our goal through both TRANSFORM and TRANSFORM Survive & Thrive is to create a blueprint for partnerships: a bank of experience that creates knowledge that is versatile and replicable. Open-sourcing learnings enables and strengthens this blueprint, providing opportunities to refine, iterate, amend and improve. With this in mind, the TRANSFORM Survive & Thrive platform contains a suite of assets to support impact enterprises: from strategic advice and business tools through to financial planning and marketing.

In order to generate real reach and change, partnership-led platforms must be an inclusive community, where like-minded organizations can come together and provide those in need with the products, services or interventions required to address persistent challenges.

SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals

The value of partnerships is widely understood, with SDG 17 outlining the importance of multilateral collaboration. The emergence and uptake of partnerships were already well underway before COVID-19, but the pandemic has expedited this movement and further highlighted their unique capabilities. Now it’s time for more organizations, from corporates, governments and civil society, to follow suit.