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Sustainability through Partnerships: A Systematic Review

Barbara Gray and Jenna Stites reviewed more than 275 publications to develop a model of four factors affecting outcomes of multi-sector partnerships.

Collaboration is one of the keys for unlocking sustainability, with leaders from all sectors of society agreeing that solving environmental and social challenges requires unparalleled cooperation.

Our report called “Sustainability through Partnerships: Capitalizing on Collaboration” provides authoritative guidance to best practices for multi-sector partnerships. The authors, Dr. Barbara Gray and Dr. Jenna Stites of Pennsylvania State University, reviewed more than 275 publications to develop a model of four factors affecting partnership outcomes:

  • Drivers;

  • Motivations;

  • Partner characteristics; and

  • Process issues.

Addressing the Complexity of Collaboration

The topic of partnerships was identified by the NBS Leadership Council as one of the top priorities in 2013. With input from the Council and help from leading sustainability academics and researchers, NBS systematic reviews synthesize existing literature and practical knowledge to provide guidance on key sustainability issues.

This report synthesizes knowledge on multi-sector partnerships for sustainability; it set out to address one major research question:

What best practices enable firms to collaborate with other organizations to advance sustainable business?

From the research question, four key subquestions emerged that the report aims to answer:

  1. What different forms do collaborative partnerships take, and how do these forms affect the possible outcomes achieved?

  2. What practices help to reconcile stakeholders’ conflicting views about sustainability and promote consensus within partnerships?

  3. How should partnership success be evaluated?

  4. What is the role of the broader societal context (e.g. institutional environment) in shaping the formation, operation and success of these partnerships for sustainability?

Unlocking the Power of Partnerships

In addition to providing research-based answers to these critical points, our systematic review sheds light on:

  • what organizations can achieve through partnerships;

  • how to achieve more effective partnerships through partner selection and process management;

  • ways in which collaborative partnerships provide the greatest gains, and;

  • types of partnerships and their associated goals.

Who Should Read the Report?

The report defines and categorizes the various types of partnerships for sustainability, which vary according to the sectors involved (i.e. business, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government, and community). The most common partnerships covered in the report are those between businesses and NGOs. As more sectors become involved, the complexity of the partnerships increases, with the most complex involving all four sectors in the partnership type called collaborative governance.

This report is designed for:

  • Business leaders and change agents wishing to convene new and innovative sustainability teams;

  • Executives and sustainability managers seeking to advance a collaborative agenda;

  • NGOs, non-profit organizations, or small businesses that want to expand their network, share their stories, and learn sustainable best practices from other industry leaders.

Finally, the report identifies key partnership outcomes for five different audiences: businesses, NGOs, governments, communities, and the environment as a whole. It offers several recommendations for all partners and specific recommendations for individual partners.


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