Organizations in private, public and civil society sectors are increasingly confronted with complex sustainable development challenges, such as resource scarcity or other risks associated with climate change and unsustainable consumption. One collaborative approach to deal with these issues is through multi-stakeholder partnerships, which bring together the knowledge and resources of many stakeholders to address a shared agenda [1
]. Exemplifying this is the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #17, which recommends that partnerships be used to accomplish global SDG targets because single organizations infrequently possess the skills and resources to address complex issues related to sustainability [3
]. However, a significant barrier to the success of sustainability-focused multi-stakeholder partnerships is the ongoing maintenance of partner engagement and commitment [4
]. For example, these partnerships often enjoy high energy and involvement from their partner organizations during the formulation stage, but it is typical for this enthusiasm to wane over time, which can threaten the viability of the partnership and thus its ability to achieve its goals [6
]. This paper seeks to address this challenge by improving what is understood about how partner implementation and value capture strategies influence their outcomes.
Cross-sector partnerships—of which multi-stakeholder partnerships are a subset—have various forms and purposes [7
]. For example, these partnerships can be bi-sector, involve as few as two partners, and address relatively straightforward issues, for instance the well-known private–public partnership (PPP) model often involves a public sector partner joining with a private sector partner to implement an infrastructure project or administer a public service. In contrast, these partnerships can also be trisector, involve several hundred or even thousand partners and address complex social challenges. One such example is the Landcare partnership in Australia, which mobilises several partners from each of the public, private and civil society sectors to achieve sustainable farming through implementing responsible land management practices [2
]. This heterogeneity in partnership form and purpose make it challenging to establish a succinct and accurate definition for all partnerships captured under the cross-sector umbrella [8
]. Even among the subgroup of cross-sector social partnership researchers that focus on multi-stakeholder partnerships there are definitional debates. At the core of these debates are partnership attributes such as voluntary versus obligatory partner involvement [8
], trisector versus bisector partner composition [9
], and formal versus informal governance structures [10
]. The partnership’s purpose is also a central point of discussion, on one hand, some researchers and practitioners propose that the term multi-stakeholder partnership refers only to those partnerships that advance the UN’s sustainable development agenda [9
]. On the other hand, the term is also used by researchers in fields such as health sciences [11
] and sports management [12
] to describe partnerships that do not necessarily conform with the UN’s definitional parameters. Such partnership attributes and functions are likely to impact partner expectations and outcomes, as well as other variables, and as such provide context for situating and interpreting research findings.
This paper examines large tri-sector multi-stakeholder partnerships that address local sustainable development issues by formulating and implementing a community sustainability or Local Agenda 21 (LA21) plan [13
]. LA21 is rooted in United Nations programs and involves a local government initiated collaborative process that results in a community sustainability plan [14
]. For reference, a community sustainability plan includes the shared long-term sustainability vision of a local community, and the goals and actions needed to overcome social, environmental, and economic challenges. LA21 partnerships are also voluntary, self-organizing, and tend to have a large and heterogeneous partner base [9
]. For example, the partnerships examined in this paper include partner organizations such as environmental NGOs, chamber of commerce, neighbourhood associations, hospitals, universities, local government departments, and businesses.
Recently, the advantages of multi-stakeholder partnerships have received a fair amount of research attention. Yet, comparatively few of these studies extend beyond identifying outcomes to understanding the underlying processes that facilitate these outcomes [15
]. Management researchers that study outcome generating processes tend to focus on partner characteristics, such as goal congruence between partner organizations [5
]. Some research has examined the impacts of partnership implementation strategies on outcomes, but these studies typically focus on the partnership-level, exploring governance structure, coordinating processes, or the patterns of partner interactions [10
]. These studies do not, however, examine how partner-level implementation strategies impact outcomes, such as partner access to resources or competitive advantage. This is a significant research gap because many large trisector multi-stakeholder partnerships are problem focused, and unlike small bisector cross-sector partnerships, are not necessarily adapted to meet both individual partner organization and shared partnership goals to the same degree [19
]. The prioritization of the partnership’s goals in multi-stakeholder partnerships mean that the benefits to partners are often a by-product rather than a focal point of implementation, and as a result, these partnerships can struggle to maintain partner engagement [13
]. The research presented in this paper contributes to the multi-stakeholder partnership literature by improving what is understood about how partners capture value from their partnership activities. In doing so, this research aims to show how multi-stakeholder partnerships, like LA21 partnerships, can maintain ongoing partner engagement even when partner participation is voluntary and needed over a long time period. It also contributes by showing that different partner strategies result in different types of resources gained. These findings have implications for partners because they suggest that when partners understand their organization’s goals for being a partner and develop their strategic capabilities accordingly, they have the potential to turn partnership-level resources into a competitive advantage for their organization.
This article takes a resource-based view (RBV) of partner value capture strategies to explore two research questions: (1) How do partner organizations capture value from sustainability-focused multi-stakeholder partnerships? And (2), do different strategies for value capture result in different bundles of resources for partners? To answer these research questions, we investigate the strategic capabilities and resource gains of partners in multi-stakeholder partnerships that implement LA21 inspired community sustainability plans.
In the following section we extend a RBV to the multi-stakeholder partner context by using it to conceptualize the strategic value of partnership-level resources to partners. We then draw on partnership and corporate sustainability literature to propose three strategic capabilities that partners can use to operationalize partnership-level resources. Next, in the Methods section, we discuss our approach to data collection and provide an overview of our survey measures. We then report findings from four regression models and conclude with a discussion about the implications of our study’s results for research, multi-stakeholder partnerships, and partners.
The descriptive statistics and results of the Pearson correlation matrix are reported in Table 1
summarizes the descriptive statistics for the control variables, comparing the means and standard deviations of the study variables by organization type and duration. The descriptive statistics reported in Table 2
indicate that on average public sector partners invest more than partners from other sectors on marketing, as well as, on internal implementation structures, whereas private sector partners invest the most of all partners on product stewardship. Surprisingly private sector partners invest the least on marketing, and as expected civil society partners invest less than other partner types on internal implementation structures. Overall, public sector partners reported the most gains in financial, human, and organizational capital as a result of their involvement in the partnership, whereas civil society partners reported the fewest gains in the financial and organizational outcome categories.
Duration of partner involvement in implementing the community sustainability plan appears to have the most impact on shared capital, whereby long-term partners reported having more influence on progress made on sustainability goals. The descriptive statistics reported in Table 2
also indicate, that on average, long-term partners experience slightly higher levels of human and organizational capital.
The following are the results of our regression analyses. We conducted four regression models to examine the relationships between our independent variables and outcome variables. We found partial support for all three of our hypotheses, in that, each strategic capability is a predictor of at least one capital. However, not all capabilities are associated with all partner capital outcomes. Broadly, we found that the best predictors of financial and organizational capitals are product stewardship and marketing, whereas human capital is predicted by marketing and structure, and shared capital has the strongest association with structure.
The results of our regression model for financial capital, reported in Table 3
, found that independent variables, stewardship and marketing had positive associations with financial capital, (B
= 0.41, p
= 0.001 and B
= 0.38, p
= 0.005, respectively). These findings suggest that financial benefits to partners may be linked to the product stewardship and marketing efforts made by the partner organizations as a result of their involvement in implementing a community sustainability plan.
Our results found that marketing and structure were the best predictors of human capital in our regression model (B
= 0.32, p
= 0.004 and B
= 0.24, p
= 0.010, respectively). These findings indicate an association between partner learning/capacity building, especially in the area of sustainability and partner organization investments in marketing and internal structures for implementing sustainability-related strategies. However, our model did not find support for a relationship between product stewardship and human capital. Also, neither organization type nor duration had an impact on gains in human capital. The results of our regression model for human capital are summarized in Table 4
We found positive and statistically significant associations between the outcome variable, organizational capital and predictors stewardship and marketing (B
= 0.27, p
= 0.011 and B
= 0.27, p
= 0.020, respectively). These results, reported in Table 5
, indicate that similar to the financial capital outcome, organizational capital or improvements in a partner organization’s reputation and stakeholder relationships is linked to the product stewardship and marketing efforts of that partner. We did not find a relationship between structure and organizational capital. However, we did find a positive and statistically significant relationship between organizational capital and duration, which suggests that organizational capital builds over time.
For the outcome variable shared capital, we found that structure (B
= 0.24, p
= 0.016) was the strongest predictor when compared to the other independent variables in our regression model. These findings suggest that organizations that invest in internal structural supports for sustainability will make more significant contributions to achieving the partnership’s sustainability goals. The results of our regression model for shared capital, reported in Table 6
, also show that duration was overall the strongest predictor of progress made on sustainability goals (B
= 0.80, p
= 0.003). This finding suggests that time spent in the partnership has a positive impact on partner contributions to sustainability progress.