Big business is uniquely placed to effect positive and systemic social change by shifting from ad hoc philanthropic efforts, towards more strategic and innovative social initiatives. However, business cannot work in isolation. It needs the expertise of non-profit organisations to fully understand the needs of the communities that it intends to serve, the government resources and reach to be able to scale initiatives, and the internal support – from leadership and staff – for effective implementation.
An expert panel at The Trialogue Business in Society Conference 2018 discussed approaches to effective stakeholder engagement and relationship building, and the various components and challenges of collaboration.
Partnership vs partnering
Andrew Boraine, CEO of Western Cape Economic Development Partnership (WCEDP), suggested a distinction between partnership – the noun – and partnering – the verb. He explained that partnerships are often reduced to organisational structures and the people involved, while partnering is an active word that denotes the ‘how’.
According to Boraine, partnering and collaborating are not optional extras, but an integral component to the process of change in our polarised society. In order to sustainably address social issues, it is necessary to include the ‘agitators’ and those in power in the same discussions. Innovative approaches are needed for social change, and allies and partners may come from the most unlikely corners.
Boraine listed three points that aid partnering and establish a process of change, especially in the public sphere:
- There needs to be a common understanding of what the problem is among those who are change agents.
- It’s important to build the necessary coalitions, specifically within the fragmented authorising environment in the public sector. The authorising environment is often a top-down structure that is disempowering and those who work in it need to be on board to mandate and institute change.
- For the mobilising of mandates and resources to takes place, there ought to be a shared vision, common agenda and joint action.
It goes without saying that, even when unlikely allies work together, there will still be many differing points of views to contend with. However, Boraine advised that, rather than expecting people to have the same views, emphasis should rather be placed on the constructive management of differences.
Colleen Magner, Managing Director of Reos Partners South Africa, agreed, making the distinction between conventional and conflict collaboration. The former is based on an agreement on the objective of the collaboration, while the latter is more complicated. Magner explained that conflict collaboration comes into play when people don’t like or trust each other but must work together. She said that, for this type of partnership to succeed, it requires honesty or else the result is a superficial sense of collaboration or a partnership that is embroiled in coercion.
Conflict collaborations are mostly about working to find the common purpose, which is harder to get to when people fundamentally disagree. It’s then important to have environments that allow for a common good but also an acknowledgement of the differences. For successful conflict collaboration, the different stakeholders need to be able to discuss where their unilateral agreements or potential exit points are, and allow the approaches to the situation to be adapted or to have room for protest if the strategies presented are not suitable.
Often, in partnerships, the people in power think that setting up an agenda is about changing the minds of the people that are causing the conflict. “If you have an interest in the problem, you are part of the problem and have some truth to add to the solution, but something must change in your approach for the solution to work,” advised Magner. According to Magner, all stakeholders are part of the problem, irrespective of the side that they support.
Rather than be discouraged by people driving their own agendas in spaces that are intended to be collaborative, Magner reminded delegates about the importance of uncovering individual interests, understanding varied experiences and the power dynamics involved.
Asyia Sheik-Ojwang, Head of Public Affairs, Communications and Sustainability at Coca-Cola, added that successful stakeholder engagement requires that egos be set aside. Sheik-Ojwang said that an important lesson for her was that the helicopter approach does not work. Because communities know their own problems intimately, it makes the most sense for companies to partner with expert NPOs to come up with the required solutions.
“Partnering is about building mutual accountability and inculcating the old saying that ‘charity begins at home,’ in businesses, public organisations and government,” said Boraine. His organisation urges those going into partnerships to evaluate their own organisations first and to judge where they have silos, hierarchies or weaknesses that they would judge other partners for.
Calvin Chirwa, Land Reform Manager at South African Forestry Companies Limited, is used to collaborating under difficult conditions. “The land we work on is affected by land reform and the challenge is to make sure that communities benefit from the business being there,” he said. For this to be done without conflict, especially amid the current land debate, is paramount. For Chirwa, directly communicating with the communities whose land has been affected has been at the top of his priorities. Chirwa explained that he convenes all stakeholders, particularly community members, on a quarterly basis and together they create a detailed list of what needs to be done and how it can be achieved. His department then teams up with the CSI projects already in place and trains community members to use the tools provided by the business to ensure that the benefits are long term and substantial.
Wrenelle Stander, Senior Vice President for Corporate Affairs and Real Estate Services at Sasol, shared the company’s commitment to partnering with multiple stakeholders and becoming an integral part of the stakeholder ecosystem in the communities in which it operates. “Our role is to create jobs and use our resources to improve society. We are part of society and not outside of it. As a business, we must earn our stake in society,” she concluded.”
Written by Khumo Ntoane
Fltr: Thabang Skwambane (Conference Chairperson); Calvin Chirwa (SAFCOL); Asyia Sheik-Ojwang (Coca-Cola); Colleen Magner (Reos Partners South Africa); Wrenelle Stander (Sasol); Andrew Boraine (WCEDP); Taddy Blecher (CIDA).
Image © Brett Eloff