What COVID-19 taught us about collaboration – 7 lessons from the frontline

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: François Bonnici, Director, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship; Head, Social Innovation, World Economic Forum, Carolien de Bruin, Head, COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs, World Economic Forum & Ekaterina Demushkina, Community & Initiatives Lead , World Economic Forum

  • The shock of COVID-19 has sparked a new spirit of collaboration and unusual alliances involving frontline actors such as social entrepreneurs.
  • Multi-sectoral, ‘glocal’ partnerships can provide exponential impact results.
  • The path to an inclusive, just and sustainable world is stronger if platforms for collective action are built.

Few would disagree that the pandemic has pushed world systems to the brink. As development gains of the last 20 years eroded, supply chains disrupted, and health systems buckled, a new urgency has emerged to do things differently – not just to survive the pandemic but to address a tsunami of global challenges. It is clear that collaboration is essential but also difficult to get right.

In many ways, social entrepreneurs have led the way in shaping an inclusive responsive – often operating on the frontlines of the crisis, but also in forging innovative, unprecedented collaborations. Conversations with Members of the World Economic Forum’s COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs, a multi stakeholder platform of 90+ organizations, surfaced seven lessons learned.

What is the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship?

The COVID Response Alliance to Social Entrepreneurs – soon to continue its work as the Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship – was launched in April 2020 in response to the devastating effects of the pandemic. Co-founded by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship together with Ashoka, Echoing Green, GHR Foundation, Skoll Foundation, and Yunus Social Business.

The Alliance provides a trusted community for the world’s leading corporations, investors, governments, intermediaries, academics, and media who share a commitment to social entrepreneurship and innovation.

Since its inception, it has since grown to become the largest multi-stakeholder coalition in the social enterprise sector: its 90+ members collectively support over 100,000 social entrepreneurs across the world. These entrepreneurs, in turn, have a direct or indirect impact on the lives of an estimated 2 billion people.

Together, they work to (i) mobilize support for social entrepreneurs and their agendas; (ii) take action on urgent global agendas using the power of social entrepreneurship, and (iii) share insights from the sector so that social entrepreneurs can flourish and lead the way in shaping an inclusive, just and sustainable world.

The Alliance works closely together with member organizations Echoing Green and GHR Foundation, as well as the Centre for the New Economy and Society on the roll out of its 2022 roadmap (soon to be announced).

Saskia Bruysten, CEO, Yunus Social Business, and co-founding partner of the COVID Response Alliance, said: “To ensure a just recovery, breaking with old habits and unusual partnerships is essential.”

1. Be clear about the change you want to see

To avoid drift, it is vital that there is not only a shared philosophy on approach, but also “a laser sharp focus” and jointly agreed goals. “Without a common denominator, it can be hard to keep a collaboration on track,” says Neelam Chhiber from Catalyst 2030 – NASE, Cofounder at the Industree Foundation in India. Together with Catalyst 2030 – NASE, the Alliance published its World Economic Forum’s India Top 50 Last Mile Responders – an effort that mobilized support for social entrepreneurs in the region during the second wave of the pandemic in India.

2. Stay flexible and agile

Alexandra van der Ploeg, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at SAP, warns “Things will move, and they will change and if you don’t build flexibility and agility into your work and agenda, you will fail early on.” Collaborative efforts cannot be seen in isolation of the systems they operate in and – much like these systems – will, by definition, always be in flux. So, while all parties need to be clear on where they are going, there also needs to be built-in flexibility and agility to accommodate how they get there.

SAP has therefore adopted a highly flexible and agile funding process, deploying much-needed unrestricted funding within weeks when the crisis erupted. Similarly, when an opportunity arose for Members of the Alliance to engage with the Forum’s community of Chief Supply Chain and Operating Officers, it was clear to make a compelling case to ‘Buy Social’ i.e., to work with social entrepreneurs on transforming value chains – they had to change their narrative to make the case for doing so in a way that matched the priorities of this community.

3. Stick to the lane that fits you best

Jennifer Beason, Global Director, Social Business and Entrepreneurship, also at SAP, adds that to build flexibility, each partner needs to be honest about what its core competencies are. “You need to know when and where to play the front runner and which lane to be swimming in. Stay focused on what you do best and be willing to stay in the background at times. This will ultimately allow the power of the collective to triumph.”

4. Be open and dare to be vulnerable

Both van der Ploeg and Chhiber reiterate that trust is not a given when competition oor competing priorities exist between collaborators. Van der Ploeg comments that: “A great start to building trust is to make a conscious effort to put one’s own agendas aside, showing vulnerability and openness to learn from other perspectives. Typically, it takes a bit of time until collaborators can be really honest with each other.” She further adds, “…It is only when we feel able to voice very clearly on all sides what are we truly expecting of this collaboration. When you understand ‘why are we really interested in this’, and ‘why are we really doing this,’ that the trust can begin.”

5. Share insights systematically

In their book The Systems Work of Social Change Cynthia Rayner and François Bonnici highlight that the ability to share data across collectives and networks helps to build trust. It also equips people with the knowledge they need to resolve problems which they encounter. At the start of the pandemic, Alliance member 60 Decibels conducted over 15,000 phone interviews in low- and middle-income countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America to gather information from low-income households on the effects of COVID-19. The researchers collected data to identify their most urgent needs. United by a common sense of urgency, it allowed others – including members of the Alliance – to respond and channel aid to where it was needed most. Wieteke Dupain, Head of Knowledge, Research & Development at Euclid Network, and co-initiator of the European Social Enterprise Monitor (ESEM), adds: “Our work starts and ends with our ability to learn from and with entrepreneurs on the ground. Only by knowing what they need and observe, can we act at the scale and pace needed.”

6. Allocate time and resources

Collaboration is essential to tackle the vast and persistent global and institutional problems that we are facing. Yet, as Melanie Maas Geesteranus, Chief Executive Officer at Porticus, a founding member of the Alliance points out: “To drive transformative and systems change we need a collaborative mindset and approach. This requires a significant investment of time and resources. To collaborate effectively, identifying and investing in building partnerships is essential to build trust and share knowledge and networks to achieve impact and results.”

7. Celebrate (small) wins along the way

Even if you manage to do everything right, when you are working to tackle the world’s big systemic challenges it can feel like progress is frustratingly slow. Urmi Sengupta, Senior Program Officer, Impact Investments at the MacArthur Foundation, adds: “Collaboration takes so much time and effort that short-term results are often important in helping build the long-term momentum and patience that is needed to achieve desired goals.”

An example: With support from MacArthur Foundation, collaborators from the Global Steering Group for Social Impact Investing (GSG), the Collaborative for Frontier Finance (CFF), and the Forum’s Sustainable Development Investment Partnership (SDIP) are looking to tackle the significant financing challenges social entrepreneurs face by building out “pathways to financing” that can be replicated across different economies. The project supports two pilot efforts in Ghana and Zambia enabling local capital providers to connect to global capital, starting in two countries only.

With COVID being far from over, we are still battling its disruptive influence and are not sure how this chapter will end. At same time, we know that the challenges the world is facing extend well beyond the pandemic. Whether working to achieve racial justice, bring energy to last mile communities, or slow down a melting Arctic, we need to keep collaborating to build a just, inclusive, and sustainable world.

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