In late January, Philanthropy U co-hosted and facilitated a workshop at WEF’s Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The session was part of an initiative sparked by our preparations for the WEF Africa summit, focused on one important question: how do we design and manage more effective multi-stakeholder partnerships in service of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

At first blush, retooling multi-stakeholder partnerships might not sound like the sexiest, most TikTok-able topic, but they are our only hope for addressing the farthest-reaching, most systemic challenges our planet faces. We need to get these partnerships right, and to date, we have too often fallen short. 

In the months following WEF Africa, we and our partners at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and GSVlabs reviewed and synthesized all available relevant literature on multi-stakeholder partnering practice, as well as insights gathered from over 30 expert practitioner interviews. In the process, we arrived at four calls to action aimed at radical multi-stakeholder partnership improvement: 

  • Recognize power. We must humbly, proactively recognize the power that communities hold via expertise and increase community ownership of solutions.
  • Radically expand networks. We must reject the tendency to partner within existing networks, sectors or even personal backgrounds. Instead, we must seek local community expertise.
  • Make every dollar count. We must unlock additional capital through cross-sector collaboration and long-term flexible funding commitments.
  • Move from transparency to accountability. We must hold ourselves accountable and demonstrate results. In that vein, we should lean into the few formal mechanisms for tracking SDG progress, and how resources — public and private — are being used.

At Philanthropy U, we aim to address these calls to action. If the world is to meet the challenge of the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, we must support community-based social impact practitioners and social entrepreneurs in asserting their leadership, rather than playing a support role as subcontractors kept at a distance from decision-making power and funding. In Philanthropy U’s world, which is focused on empowering and training social impact organizations worldwide, this means that multi-stakeholder partnerships must be increasingly led by our learners

The existing evidence confirms our view: by supporting locally-led leadership, we can make collaboration in service of the SDGs more effective and more sustainable. But as we know, there remains much distrust and misunderstanding between civil society actors, governments and the private sector, largely stemming from lack of agency and involvement. This question — exactly how can we improve multi-stakeholder partnerships through greater inclusion and leadership of people with “lived experience”? — was the framing for our Davos session.  

So, how did the session go?

We were very pleased to see strong agreement around our areas for improvement, as well as universal recognition that now, at the opening of the “decade of delivery” on the SDGs, is the time to do it.

Our discussions revolved around two key concepts, each with significant questions and takeaways: 

We need community-led, networked accountability. Multi-stakeholder partnerships must provide better accountability mechanisms for the communities they serve. To that end, we must ask: What additional capacity do communities need to fully engage with collaborative initiatives conceived and led by international organizations? What kinds of institutions can be supported to represent communities within multi-stakeholder partnerships? Can community foundations play a sustainable intermediary role? 

While partnership scale is often emphasized, sustainability and value to community are just as important. In order to achieve the SDGs, we know we must amplify and scale our efforts. But we must also listen to communities — scale must not be achieved at the expense of their input and involvement. At present, truly participatory, human-centered methods for designing new initiatives remain largely underutilized within philanthropy and cross-sector development partnerships. It’s time we elevated sustainability and value to community as success metrics on a par with scale by adopting human-centered design principles from the very beginning of partnerships. These are tangible skills that can be passed on and utilized by any and all partnership actors.  

Nothing discussed in these dialogues is revolutionary. We have known for a long time what we have to achieve; thus far, adequate solutions have eluded us. But I hope this conversation is a small step in the right direction.

Download your copy of the report, “SDG Partnerships Agenda 2030: Accelerating Progress,” that puts forth 12 calls-to-action to inspire stronger multi-stakeholder partnerships in the service of the SDGs here.

March 12, 2020


Connor is the CEO of Philanthropy U. He is passionate about systems-level change, local social impact and education reform.