Delivering on the Promise of Private-Public Partnerships

The numbers are staggering: 884 million people do not have access to , and 2.6 billion people — over half of the developing world’s population — lack access to basic sanitation. Unilever believes these are basic human rights. As a business that operates in many of the countries where these needs are most evident and pressing, we must help ensure those rights are realized.

Through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan — our strategy for sustainable, equitable growth, tied to 50+ time-bound targets — we have made a commitment to improving the health and wellbeing of one billion people, through access to sanitation, hygiene, safe drinking water and adequate nutrition. And we are unapologetic about the fact that improving people’s livelihoods will also enable us to grow our business.

But we are under no illusions that we can do this alone.

To tackle threats to the future health and wellbeing of people in need, businesses must partner with governments and NGOs, lending their skills, resources, and reach.

We have found that choosing the right partner allows us to amplify our message and impact. We may sell products and have offices in a country, but a local will likely have more insight into the problems facing a particular neighborhood; or a locally-operating international nongovernmental organization may have the physical presence of volunteers across a region; or perhaps a local government is already delivering a community outreach programmer that we can support and grow.

There is no value in duplicating efforts; we’d rather work with others and bring our skills and resources to bear in achieving a shared goal.

A couple of our programs illustrate this well:

  • To add to the scale and reach of our own programs that promote handwashing with soap, we partner with UNICEF, the Millennium Village Project, Population Services International (PSI) and national governments. And within each country we support many local charities and NGOs to deliver behavior-change programs that educate mothers and children about how to stop the spread of easily-preventable diseases such as diarrhea.
  • Through the Unilever Foundation, also in with PSI and jointly with Facebook, we created Waterworks™, a not-for-profit program that provides safe clean drinking water to communities in need. Currently running as a pilot in Bhopal, India, Waterworks™ operates as a Facebook Timeline application, through which people can make donations to support Waterworkers who visit their local communities to distribute PureIt water purifiers and sachets to families in need, as well as provide education about the importance of clean drinking water. The Waterworkers, who are themselves part of the community, also receive an income that helps them improve their livelihoods.

In both programs, the partnerships draw on the respective expertise of each player and we come together to deliver results at a scale that we would not have been able to deliver individually. Importantly, these collaborations have also taught (and re-taught) us some valuable lessons about what we can bring to and get from partnerships:

Find the right partner: Successful partnerships should draw on the marketing, consumer understanding and expertise of the private sector; and the reach, resources and scale from the public sector. There are many effective NGOs and government organisations to work with; some are large and have wide reach across countries, some are small and specialized in serving very specific communities. Find the one that has the expertise and experience in the particular field that you are aiming to influence. Don’t be afraid to work with more than one partner; equally, don’t stretch your resources too thinly by trying to work with everyone in the field.

Understand your audience: We’ve been in emerging markets for over 100 years, offering products aimed at the bottom of the pyramid as much as for wealthier consumers. We understand consumers and cater to the needs of those less affluent — from fortified margarine that help fulfill the nutritional requirements of people on a limited diet; to sachets that offer affordable access to well-known brands. And our insight is not limited to products. For instance, we also have Project Shakti: a rural distribution system run primarily in India, which currently employs more than 45,000 underprivileged rural women — Shakti Ammas, or ‘strength mothers’ — who are invited to become direct-to-consumer sales distributors in very small rural villages. We drew on our experience with the Shakti women to inform the Waterworks project that we are currently running with PSI.

Make it incremental: A partnership shouldn’t replace or replicate existing programs. Instead, focus on identifying new approaches or amplifying and extending the scale of proven programs. Be open to change, adapt and grow a partnership — it’s only through stretching goals that you will be able to make progress.

Empower the partnership: A senior executive must champion the partnership to ensure that the longer term goals survive the inevitable internal distractions and new priorities that arise in any business. At Unilever, each of our key partnerships is overseen by a dedicated global team that works jointly with a designated champion within each key country — and, depending on the programs, with local brand teams. Importantly, I oversee all our partnerships — and as a member of the executive board, I update my colleagues at the top table on the progress of the various projects.

We have big ambitions for our business, and for our consumers around the world. These ambitions are shared by many, and it’s only sensible that we all work together to make a difference.

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Scaling Social Impact
Insights from HBR and the Bridgespan Group


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