Fostering Open and Innovative Partnership Ecosystems

One of the most powerful ways to drive change is by looking outside the traditional circle of collaborators and pursuing a more diverse range of partners and partnership models—including those with suppliers, customers, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and even rivals. And the COVID crisis is sparking some serious speed-dating: 70 percent of respondents in the Fortune/Deloitte CEO Survey said the pandemic is fostering formation of new partnerships and alliances.17

There is perhaps no better example of innovative partnerships than the efforts to create and test COVID-19 vaccines and treatment protocols: AstraZeneca teaming up with Oxford University; Upstart Moderna working with the US government’s Operation Warp Speed program; Pfizer and BioNTech joining forces. The pharma industry’s ability to select, develop, and test multiple vaccines and treatments in less than a year—a process that typically takes a decade or more—was made possible through groundbreaking collaborations between industry, academia, regulators, NGOs, and tech.

One prime case study in this new partnership model is the number-one pick on PMI’s list of Most Influential Projects: the US$125 million COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator.18 Backed by major players ranging from Mastercard to The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to Wellcome, the project is laser-focused on scaling potential COVID-19 treatments through fierce collaboration with the World Health Organization, the global research community, governments, private-sector organizations, and regulators around the world.

Organizations are following a similar partnership strategy in amping up the global response to climate change, discovering that public-private partnerships and alliances with other organizations that have expertise in a target area can amplify the scale of projects—and the ROI. After the outbreak of wildfires in Australia consumed almost half of Kangaroo Island, an all-star team of government agencies and NGOs swooped in to rescue the area’s iconic ecosystem and help save kangaroos, koalas, and other species.19 On another front, the World Economic Forum teamed up with Salesforce, Deloitte, and LinkedIn to create UpLink, a platform connecting social entrepreneurs with actionable resources to attack the UN SDGs.20

Partnering on positive social impact initiatives like the UN Global Compact offers opportunities for organizations to think more broadly about their project choices, and boost progress by pooling resources and the deep knowledge of markets required in a multipolar world. Abdollahyan’s UNOPS team works with local partners and NGOs as well as private-sector companies interested in investing in the economy. Companies that commit to collaborating with, and investing in, local communities to provide societal benefits will help sustain those markets—and build trust. In particular, engaging with youth in developing nations in innovative ways that address societal needs will help to open up these markets, which make up for lack of spending power with sheer size and growth potential.

In Niger, for example, nearly 60 percent of the population is under 18 and most young people have limited education and job opportunities. By investing in education, internet access, and basic infrastructure, companies can bolster the economy, while creating a more prosperous and competitive marketplace. “If we create a dynamic economic ecosystem, investments will be sustainable,” Abdollahyan said.

Coca-Cola HBC is another organization tackling the issue of youth unemployment through partnerships. The beverage giant produces, distributes, and sells its products in 28 markets, including many developing and emerging ones. The company began its flagship #YouthEmpowered program in 2017 to address “one of the most relevant societal issues in many of our markets: the employability of young people.” The company pledged to train 1 million young people across the globe by 2025. And then COVID-19 hit.

“At the beginning of the lockdown, our assumption was that we wouldn’t be able to achieve our annual target,” said Michael Dickstein, the company’s group sustainability and community director in Vienna, Austria. But by working closely with local communities and NGOs and rethinking its approach, he said, the team shifted to virtual learning and “we were able to reach a lot more young people.” In October, the company reached an important milestone, counting 300,000 participants.

Such projects to engage and upskill young people not only help to alleviate the job losses, inequalities, and other risks of the pandemic, but they also build a talent pipeline that companies can mine for future growth.


Read Making Social Impact Projects Strategic Priority

Read Rethinking Relationships with Customers and Wider Stakeholders



17. Fortune/Deloitte CEO Survey. Fortune and Deloitte, October 2020.

18. “Most Influential Projects 2020: COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator,” PM Network, September/October 2020.

19. “Most Influential Projects 2020: Kangaroo Island Recovery,” PM Network, September/October 2020.

20.“Most Influential Projects 2020: UpLink,” PM Network, September/October 2020.

By investing in education, internet access, and basic infrastructure, companies can bolster the economy, while creating a more prosperous and competitive marketplace.