Sustainability is a grand challenge that diverse communities of interest all over the world are currently focusing on at the local and global level. At the local level, thousands of cities have decided to address their sustainability goals through local cross-sector social partnerships, while at the global scale, governments of the world have agreed on the universal aim of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Cross-sector social partnerships have also been identified by researchers and policy makers as a way to address sustainability challenges, with partner organizations from across sectors playing a key role in the achievement of their sustainability goals. Organizations partnering for sustainability are the focus of this dissertation.
Many researchers from diverse disciplines claim that organizations join partnerships for strategic reasons, and that sustainability is a strategic opportunity. Integrated literature on strategy, partnerships and sustainability, however, is sparse, and the strategic engagement of organizations in partnerships has been mostly assessed qualitatively. This dissertation draws on strategic management, cross-sector partnerships and sustainability literature to examine the strategic engagement of organizations partnering across sectors for community sustainability. Building on strategic management literature, this dissertation bases its research on three key variables: strategic goals represented as drivers for organizations to join sustainability partnerships, organizational structural features which reflect how organizations structure to implement the partnership’s collective sustainability strategy, and organizational outcomes as what organizations gain from partnering for sustainability. Drivers and outcomes are studied through the management perspective of resource-based view (RBV), that is complemented with a community capitals approach often used in the public policy literature, and structural features are examined through contingency theory drawing from management literature. The questions this dissertation aims to answer are focused on the strategic engagement of organizations in sustainability partnerships through the understanding of organizational structures, the value organizations assign to drivers and outcomes to assess resources through RBV, the implemented structural features to examine contingency theory, and the strategic relationships among these variables.
This research collects data through a survey from 224 organizations partnering in large cross-sector partnerships. Each of these partnerships has an approximate minimum of one hundred partners implementing community sustainability plans; these are found in: Barcelona (Spain), Bristol (UK), Gwangju (South Korea), and Montreal (Canada). The survey reached a response rate of 26% allowing findings to be generalizable, showing good reliability, and with unbiased responses across organizations, partnerships, and types of organizations. Within this data set are responses from 71 businesses on their drivers to partner, structural features for partnering, and partner outcomes, which was complemented with qualitative content analyses to study the relationships between businesses partnering for local sustainability, and the SDGs as a proxy to global sustainability.
Findings from this research show that organizations implement structures when partnering for sustainability. However, the findings further reveal that structures do not affect the relationships between goals and desired outcomes, and being highly structured is not imperative for achieving valuable outcomes. Results also show that society-oriented resources such as contributing positively to environmental challenges or collaborating with society are the most valuable drivers and outcomes for organizations; informal structural features are the most implemented for addressing sustainability partnerships (for example implementing plans and policies, or partnering with other organizations); and organizations achieve the goals that drive them to partner. No statistically significant relationships were found between drivers and structures, nor between structures and outcomes. Finally, research on businesses shows a positive relationship between business’ drivers and outcomes and the SDGs, representing an opportunity for businesses to achieve their goals and for business outcomes to contribute to global sustainability.
Findings from this dissertation contribute to organizational strategic management, partnerships and sustainability literature by confirming quantitatively that sustainability partnerships are strategic for organizations. This dissertation also contributes to the strategy literature by highlighting the key roles of structures and context in the achievement of strategic goals, presenting a theoretical model that integrates different schools of thought. This research also contributes to the refinement of RBV by highlighting with empirical evidence how valuable societal resources are to organizations, and to contingency theory by confirming that informal structural features are how organizations address uncertain and complex environments such as sustainability. Another contribution from this research is to the partnerships literature by highlighting the power that large cross-sector partnerships have in the achievement of organizational goals. With respect to the business literature, this research also contributes to the understanding of businesses in the context of their engagement in local and global sustainability.
From these specific contributions, two main conclusions and theoretical contributions arise. First is the relevance of large cross-sector sustainability partnerships, highlighting the contextual role they play, which together with organizational structures, lead organizations to achieve their strategic goals. And second is the value of societal resources, which can be considered strategic for organizations due to the importance that contributing to society has for organizations, and the way these resources are pursued through organizational engagement in cross-sector partnerships.