Critical Thinking on Partnership: free chapters mark ten years

“Ten years after Terms for Endearment was published it continues to be groundbreaking, as it provides a more nuanced analysis of cross-sectoral partnering than many studies on the subject, and maps out an agenda for corporate citizenship that continues to inspire us today. A decade ago Terms for Endearment was critical in helping me to realize the power of partnerships and that in order for sustainable development to be effective collaboration by stakeholders from distinct sectors sharing their respective experience, expertise and resources was the only way forward and that we could no longer go it alone. The partnership examples where invaluable to formulating our approach.”
- Sean Ansett

Sean was working on CSR at Gap Inc. when he picked up my book “Terms for Endearment”, 10 years ago. Back then partnerships between businesses, NGOs and others to promote responsible business and sustainable development were rather novel arrangements. Today they are commonplace, worldwide. As such, it is important for more professional rigour to be brought to their management and analysis. That is the inspiration behind our “Engaging Change” work programme at Lifeworth Consulting, and to that end, we’re making existing materials more widely available, and sharing new research on partnering today.

First up, to mark the anniversary, the publisher Greenleaf is offering a big discount on “Terms for Endearment” (50% off), and making a number of the chapters free to download. “The book itself was a great collection of articles and it really helped kick start a critical perspective on partnerships and an engagement from the academic community with the political ramifications of corporate responsibility practice” explain Professors Andy Crane and Dirk Matten on their blog. It is fascinating to see where the contributors, clearly on the cutting edge of their work as to be focused on this issue at the time, have subsequently progressed. George Kell, soon to become head of the new UN Global Compact, and Kumi Naidoo, now head of Greenpeace International, wrote forewords. So I asked a few contributors to reflect on their chapters and what they have learned since. To begin, Andy Crane’s reflections follow below. Reflections from other contributors will be shared next week, including Peter Newell, Steve Waddell and Saleem Ali.

Second, we have new research to share this month, published in the leading journal ‘Business Strategy and the Environment’. As any field of practice grows, so orthodoxies emerge. That is the case with cross-sector partnering, and a new orthodoxy in both practice and research could stifle critical thinking and real progress on the ground. With my co-editors Eva Collins and Juliet Roper, we call this “partnerism”, an assumption that partnership is always useful in creating change, and that struggle and conflict are unhelpful. Contributors to the volume look at experiences of partnership from across the Asia-Pacific, and bring new insights into what really drives partnerships and what the future holds. In Terms for Endearment contributors placed partnerships in the context of power relations between sectors and the need for more accountability. In the special issue we maintain that view of partnerships in context – as a useful methodology, not ideology.

I hope the materials are of some use, whether you’re a manager or academic.
Jem Bendell

Reflections from Professor Andrew Crane, author of the chapter, “Culture clash and mediation: exploring the cultural dynamics of business-NGO collaboration”, in Terms for Endearment

“If truth be told, I discovered business-NGO partnerships pretty much by accident. I was trying to complete my PhD, which was about the “amoralization” of corporate greening. That is, how business involvement in sustainability was accompanied by some form of removal of moral framing and content. I’m not just talking the business case, though that was certainly a major part of it. But also how even social mission companies sometimes failed to morally engage their employees in green business. Or how middle managers in companies would try to make environmental issues as normal and unthreatening to their colleagues as possible. “The environment” my respondents basically seemed to be telling me, was “not ethics”.

I ran into the WWF Plus Group, which is the partnership that I examine in the chapter that is included in Terms for Endearment, because one of the companies I was writing a case study on was involved in the initiative. The Plus Group (a working group seeking to implement the Forest Stewardship Council accreditation scheme in the UK) seemed to me to be an especially interesting context to explore the kinds of questions that I was interested in. Here, I sensed, the moral complexion of the different partners might come into sharp relief. Not exactly a “good” NGO facing up to a whole bunch of “bad” companies like some latter day cowboy story. But certainly plenty of potential for a collision of moral worldviews – or more broadly culture clash as the chapter title puts it.

So I got deeper and deeper into the initiative, and became invigorated by exploring the cultural dimensions of business-NGO partnerships. A number of researchers had alluded to the potential for culture problems to arise, but no one had investigated them in any real depth. In the end, I got so into it that, like a badly behaved guest, I probably wound up staying longer than I was supposed to. But I also think that the kind of work I was doing was necessary to move our knowledge up a level.

Looking back now, I think that the chapter still holds up well. It shows that there are different ways of thinking about culture with respect to partnerships, which is a point still missed by many people who study the phenomenon. In that respect, I think it’s great that Greenleaf is making the pdf of the chapter freely available. It will help to disseminate the more critical approach to culture that the piece showcases.

And then there are the insights I provide about the role played by ‘cultural mediators’ in managing cultural translations across and within organizations. At the time that I was writing the chapter, more than a decade ago, this seemed fresh and new. It captured a very real and, I think, important dynamic at play in partnerships. In fact, I’ve had a number of practitioners over the years that have the read the piece saying, ‘yes, that’s exactly what I do!”

So the identification of cultural mediators, and my analysis of the role they play in this complex cultural milieu of partnerships, still rings true. Actually today, it’s much more commonplace for partnering organizations to go so far as to formally identify such a role: NGOs have partnership managers; companies have stakeholder relationship managers and other similar posts. But if we peer beneath the surface, we’ve still got a long way to go before we really understand what’s going on here.

That said, I’ve been heartened in the last few years to see some interesting studies emerging which really help us to see these deeper cultural dynamics more clearly. May Seitanidi, for instance, explores in her recently published book, The Politics of Partnerships, the dangers posed by seeking partners with too great a cultural fit, and the limits to meaningful change imposed by managing away conflict. Bahar Ali Kazmi, who is completing his PhD at the University of Nottingham, has been looking at how cultural mediators operate among different moral logics in the realization of human rights in developing countries. So there’s a lot of great work going on. And I expect that in another 10 years time, we’ll be looking back at how the research of these emerging scholars has helped shape the evolving field of business-NGO partnerships.”

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