Within the social enterprise arena Partnerships are certainly a key vehicle for scaling ventures and achieving greater social impact. Exploring the topic of Partnerships is even more relevant given that one of the seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to "strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development" with a particular mention of Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships "that mobilize and share knowledge, expertise, technologies and financial resources" and to "encourage and promote effective public, public-private, and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships."
Understanding the nature of Partnerships and creating the win-win-win relationships which make them long-term and sustainable is crucial in achieving this Goal. The first "win" is for the donor organisation or government in many cases, the second is for the NGO or social enterprise working on entrepreneurial solutions to tackling a social issue and the third is obviously a "win" for society.
Partnerships are however fraught with challenges; particularly cross-sector ones. There may be conflicting objectives, clashes of egos or personalities and power struggles which can hold back the development of successful partnerships.
It was no surprise therefore that earlier this year at the Skoll World Forum for Social Entrepreneurship there was a session on "Building Partnerships for Impact at Scale" led by Bhaskar Chakravorti (Senior Associate Dean of International Business and Finance at The Fletcher School, Tufts University) and Zahid Torres-Rahman (Founder of Business Fights Poverty.)
During the session we explored five factors in building great partnerships:
1) Search for common ground
"Business and the social sector speak a different language" is a common gripe I hear when discussing partnerships.
As a social entrepreneur or NGO approaching a large corporation or government it is often easy to get stuck on focusing on the differences between the organisations rather than the areas of mutual interest. The sooner you can focus on the areas of collaboration and what each party can bring in tackling a particular problem the better. What is the value proposition for both sides? Be upfront about this from the outset so you know what you are getting into.
In order for a partnership to be truly sustainable it should also speak to the core of the business rather than sit at the periphery and be siloed to the CSR function. CSR department budgets are susceptible to changes in business cycles whereas if you can embed yourself and your offering into the heart of the business you benefit from a range of potential funding channels such as Marketing, Product Development, Distribution which also helps to ensure your work survives cyclical budget cuts.
2) Metrics for success
In order for a partnership to thrive, all parties need to know whether you are headed in the right direction. It's therefore important to be clear on what success looks like and what the metrics / KPIs are which will help ascertain the direction of travel.
Ensure all parties subscribe to these metrics from the outset so that the right data is collected and reported on at regular intervals, to avoid any unnecessary surprises later down the line.
3) Asymmetry of power
There is often the notion of a dominant partner, usually attributed to the partner who contributes the most financially. In order for a partnership to be successful this must be recognised as inevitable but it is how this is managed which is important. Along with this comes ego clashes and "vying for credit" so make sure you surface these issues from the outset.
Try to demonstrate the value all partners bring to the table in different ways beyond just money. Never underplay the role of the NGO/social enterprise in the relationship. Whilst the social organisation benefits in terms of finance, access to expertise, people and perhaps channels, the corporation or government partner also benefits considerably from working with an NGO or social enterprise partner which is often over-looked.
For a corporate or government they benefit from greater credibility and better brand equity through their affiliation with the NGO / social enterprise; access to the 'last mile' - particularly in rural or under-developed areas where they may not already have access; as well as access to expertise, market insight and talent within the social partner.
Where partners regard each other as equals and value and respect each others' contributions - that is the start of a strong partnership.
4) It's all about the people
People do business with people and so the nature and strength of your relationship within these organisations matter. We often get caught up in job titles and the hierarchies of organisations, sometimes at the cost of identifying the most effective potential champions for the partnership (which may not necessarily be the CEO.)
Whilst an introduction from the CEO will definitely open doors it's also important to win the hearts and minds of those working at different levels in the organisation as they are your day to day linchpins.
It is also important to avoid 'key man dependency.' If your relationship with an organisation rests on the goodwill and enthusiasm of one employee you're in trouble. People move jobs and so your partnership may be fragile if you do not establish deep relationships at different levels within the partner organisation.
5) Difference in time
Depending on the nature of your partner - be it government or business, their size, culture and processes will dictate at what speed they operate. This most likely will differ to the speed you as a social organisation work. The key is to not get frustrated but understand the systems and processes your partner has to go through to make decisions. The easier you can make it for them to make decisions, perhaps by ensuring all the groundwork is done on their behalf the faster things will move. When barriers appear or things take longer than planned keep persevering.
From personal experience of working with large corporations often getting engaged and the initial phase is the hardest. Once you are embedded and the relationship has kicked off properly things tend to (but not always) get easier!
That said partnerships will never be easy. Different organisations work in different contexts with different agendas. When faced with difficult discussions it's often useful to remember why you are doing what you're doing? Not only will it give you the strength to keep going but it will be the thing which unites the partners and help you all to work towards a greater common goal and ultimately in making the world a better place.