How Multistakeholder Partnerships Can Accelerate the UN Sustainable Development Goals

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Chapter 1

Introduction and Background

Multistakeholder partnerships – that is, voluntary collaborations whereby stakeholders are committed through a formal agreement to share resources, accountability, risks, leadership, and benefits – are seen as a vital ingredient for success in reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Despite the growing number of partnerships that have emerged, truly transformative partnerships are difficult to find. This report offers extensive research findings coupled with practical guidance and recommendations for partnership practitioners to help them establish and accelerate a transformative SDG vision.

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Multistakeholder Partnerships and the Sustainable Development Goals

In September 2015, the governments of the world adopted the landmark United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and then, just three months later, signed the Paris Climate Agreement. These historic and unprecedented agreements set ambitious goals for achieving no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality, reduced inequality, and climate action. Among the SDGs, the last goal, SDG 17, is sustainable development through partnerships, the topic of this report.

We adapt the United Nations definition of multistakeholder partnership and define multistakeholder partnerships as a voluntary collaboration between two or more stakeholders, whereby stakeholders are committed through a formal agreement to share resources, accountability, risks, leadership, and benefits to meet a specific SDG-related objective (UN 2015).

There are literally thousands of multistakeholder partnerships created among governments, businesses, civil society, and other organizations focused on the SDGs. While the work of some of these partnerships and other initiatives have helped contribute to progress on many of the SDGs, great challenges remain, especially as the world faces the triple threat of a global pandemic, economic recession, and growing climate threat. We don’t necessarily need more partnerships, we need more of existing and future partnerships to accelerate their progress on addressing systemic issues like poverty, hunger, social and racial equity, and climate change.

Partnerships can mobilize resources, increase collaboration, and create new solutions to the world’s greatest challenges. There is great hope for partnerships as well as a growing sentiment that transformation is required to drive real sustainability action. These transformative partnerships, however, are difficult to find (Torres-Rahman et al. 2018; Stibbe et al. 2018; BCSD 2017), and those that do exist have yet to fully deliver on their transformation goals (Stibbe et al. 2018; Peterson et al. n.d.; Stern 2017; KS et al. 2016; Dahiya and Okitasari 2018). And so, in this report we focus on partnerships with transformative ambition, and study the characteristics of these partnerships to understand the progress they are making toward their transformation goals for sustainable development. It is our hope that, over time, more partnerships will move from ones with transformative ambitions to ones with transformative success in helping the world achieve the SDGs and the commitments made under the Paris Agreement.

Report Objectives and Target Audience

This report aims to contribute to the emerging research on transformative multistakeholder partnerships. Currently, three of the major knowledge gaps in partnerships research are a lack of understanding around the concept of transformation and its integration into a partnership’s vision and objectives (Clarke and Crane 2018; Hargreaves 2010; Kania et al. 2018; Maassen and Galvin 2019), how best to leverage the motivations and strengths of each partner in a partnership (Austin and Seitanidi 2012; Dalberg 2020; Stibbe and Prescott 2020), and proper implementation of commonly reported partnering success factors (Dalberg 2020; BCSD 2017; Pattberg and Widerberg 2016). We seek to address these knowledge gaps by asking the question, “How can partnerships with transformative ambitions maximize their effectiveness toward driving SDG action?”

Collaboration is widely acknowledged as critical to meeting the bold and interconnected goals outlined in the SDGS, and SDG 17 tells us that we need partnerships to implement the others (Bos et al. 2016; KPMG International 2016; Stibbe and Prescott et al. 2020). As such, this report starts with the premise that partnerships are a desired way to accelerate transformative SDG action. We do not set out to prove whether or not partnerships are a desired way to pursue change, nor do we highlight failed partnerships, as assessing both are entirely different research questions. We also do not explicitly discuss the transformation impacts of partnerships since most are early in their partnership journey without end impacts to share just yet. We do, however, discuss partnerships’ progress toward transformation goals and hope to report on longer-term impacts in future editions of this publication, once partnerships have had more time to mature. Although we don’t explicitly seek out failed partnerships, we discuss partnership challenges and provide recommendations for improving partnership resilience.

Our offerings are distinct because we weave together existing partnership and transformation research and empirically examine partnerships with transformative ambitions. We draw from a litany of academic and gray literature on transformation and systems change Often used in academic literature to refer to sweeping changes to an existing construct or system. For the purposes of this paper, we consider this the same as transformation theory, multistakeholder partnership success factors and challenges, and systems change evaluation as well as dozens of conversations with partnership experts and practitioners from government, academia, business, CSOs, and of course, partnerships themselves. We analyze a unique cohort of partnerships from the Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030 (P4G) ecosystem—partnerships funded by P4G in 2018 and 2019 and also shortlisted partnerships to P4G’s State-of-the-Art (SOTA) Partnership Awards program—to better understand how partnerships with transformation potential maximize their effectiveness toward SDG action. (See Box 1 and Appendix C for more detail on these P4G partnerships.)

Partnerships, of course, are not always the panacea to solve all sustainable development challenges and can present high transaction costs. A vital step in setting up a partnership is the determination of whether or not partnering is the right approach. If the outcome of the partnership will be greater than what would have happened individually through the actions of any given stakeholder or a different partnering arrangement, and if transaction costs are manageable with a projected and worthwhile return on investment, then stakeholders should proceed.

We hope this report will be helpful to the stakeholders often seen in partnership: governments, businesses, and CSOs. These stakeholders may come together in a variety of combinations, and this report’s findings are relevant to all, especially those that strive for transformative SDG action.

Report Organization

The report is organized in three subsequent chapters, each of which addresses the aforementioned knowledge gaps:

  • Chapter 2. Transformation. In this chapter, we discuss three key characteristics of transformation. Partnerships can use these characteristics as guiding lights for their transformation goals. We also present different partnership pathways to transformation.
  • Chapter 3. Stakeholders. Multistakeholder partnerships can require a high level of coordination, so having a clear understanding of stakeholder contributions is essential to reducing transaction costs and defining clear roles and responsibilities. By exploring each partnership practitioner—governments, businesses and CSOs—we help stakeholders understand each other just a bit better.
  • Chapter 4. Transformation Success Factors. Here we present a unique analysis of partnership success factors, drawing from the insights of 41 partnerships in the P4G ecosystem that are pursuing transformation on sustainable development. Using a new method to evaluate how well partnerships are meeting their transformation goals, we highlight four success factors in which partnerships with high transformation potential were especially intentional in terms of implementation compared to those with lower transformation potential. We offer accompanying guidance for partnerships to set themselves up for success (while also reflecting on challenges that partnerships may face) and detail the stories of some notable partnerships in their journeys to achieve the SDGs.

Ultimately, our hope is that this report will emphasize the importance of transformation as the new sustainable development model of the 21st century, inspire individual stakeholders to rethink current activities and shift partnering models as appropriate, and help existing partnerships expand their strategic purview with transformation at the center, whether they already intend to drive transformative actions or not.

Box 1 | Report Notes and Caveats

Partnerships of Interest

This report is focused on multistakeholder partnerships that have a vision to accelerate progress on the SDGs. We adapt the United Nations definition of multistakeholder partnership and define a multistakeholder partnership as a voluntary collaboration between two or more stakeholders, whereby stakeholders are committed through a formal agreement to share resources, accountability, risks, leadership, and benefits to meet a specific SDG-related objective (UN 2015).

There are many types of partnerships that differ in composition and aim. One useful framing provided by The Partnership Initiative (Stibbe et al. 2018) describes three broad categories (Figure B1-1). At the left end of the spectrum, we see straightforward relationships that support a common goal and address a specific, easy-to-define problem—for example, two parties coming together for a simple financial transaction, or a business working with a manufacturer in its supply chain to produce a product. At the right end of the spectrum, we see more dynamic arrangements involving multiple stakeholders working across sectors, often on complex challenges in larger-scale systems (Stibbe et al. 2018). These multistakeholder transformative partnerships are ambitious and desire to transform systems from working on an unsustainable pathway to a sustainable pathway aligned with the SDGs.

Figure B1-1 | Types of Partnerships

Source: Stibbe et al. 2018.

We are interested in these transformative partnerships that include stakeholders from government, business, and CSOs (e.g., nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations and academia). We view these three major stakeholder types as especially critical for transformation and accelerating the SDGs. Government, for its vital role in providing public services and establishing policies, regulations, and laws; business for its ability to innovate and leverage finance as well as its influence in supply chains; and CSOs for their focus on equity, human rights, and access to communities and people (Stibbe and Prescott 2020). Chapter 2 provides further information on transformation objectives and pathways that these partnerships may seek, as well as examples of transformation-seeking partnerships.

Primary Research—P4G Partnerships

Although this report is targeted toward all transformation-focused multistakeholder partnerships, the primary research that underlies Chapter 4’s findings on success factors was drawn based on a survey and evaluation of partnerships from the partnership accelerator, P4G, which works to accelerate commercially focused partnerships in five SDG areas—the circular economy, cities, energy, food, and water—through funding, technical assistance, networking support, and knowledge sharing. With WRI as an organizing partner for P4G, our report research team had unique access to P4G partnerships, allowing us to test current findings on success factors with a group of partnerships specifically seeking transformation to drive the SDGs. However, we note that despite P4G’s commercial focus, findings from this chapter are applicable to non-commercially focused multistakeholder partnerships because our study of success factors is drawn from a broader, all-inclusive review of partnership best practices.

Other Partnership Stakeholders

We recognize that transformative partnerships are not limited to government, business, and CSOs and that other stakeholder types may play a critical role. These include, for example, foundations, donors, investors, communities, and citizen groups (Stibbe and Prescott 2020). These stakeholders are discussed briefly in Chapter 4 as a part of a partnership’s supportive network of external stakeholders, but it is important to note that they can also be important core partners. Sustainable finance practices like green bonds, for instance, have matured over the years, and providers of finance—capital providers, financiers, philanthropies—are finding recognition in a category of their own.

Community and citizen groups are also most often indirectly represented by CSOs in partnerships, although there are some instances when citizens are expressly noted as a key partnership stakeholder, such as with the Tropical Forest Alliance (TFA), which considers indigenous people and communities to be formal partners. Both are critical partners in TFA’s mission to reduce commodity-driven deforestation globally, whether they are the smallholder farmers felling trees or bystanders negatively affected by systemic deforestation.


This report references many terms—e.g., transformation, transformative change, system, multistakeholder partnership—that are further defined in the glossary. (See Glossary.)

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