My Top Cross-Sector Partnership Tips

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Getting the best out of your Partnerships: Investing upfront, learning to work differently, and telling your story!

Whether you are a business or a non-profit entity, it will not have escaped your attention that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals prioritised what they refer to as “the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development”. It is their 17th Goal, and it largely focuses around the role that large institutions together play to address social and environmental issues, on such topics as trade, technology (eg population internet access) and remittances.

However, their use of the word “partnership” is taken from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which also coveted the practice. In turn, some of the even earlier commitments, in particular to cross-sector partnering, were coined at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. In the 28 years since that event, the act of organisations partnering together to achieve common goals has become mainstream parlance in the world of sustainability. Which has meant, a lot of the time, the true definition of what it means to partner has become lost in the melee, and the word is bandied about as a “catch-all” phrase and, unfortunately, much of the time used incorrectly.

Keeping abreast of how cross-sector collaborations have evolved over the past 15 years, I have recently launched a consultancy – http://www.coracleconsulting.net – that helps broker cross-sector partnerships, and build the skills required to implement these effectively.

It seems to me that there are some fundamental principles to how a good partnership between different types of organisations can be established, implemented and then (hopefully) scaled and sustained.

Here, then, for those readers interested, is an indicative list of 4 Top Tips that I would suggest can enhance the quality of cross-sector partnerships:

#1 – Upfront investment in appropriate Partnership Resources. On too many occasions I’ve seen organisations launch partnerships together without duly auditing what their respective resource investments were in advance. The types of resources to which I’m referring include: human capital; financial; senior leadership buy-in; R&D; measurement systems; and internal and external communications plans.

In the scenario where a large corporation has decided to form a partnership with an international NGO, I see there to be several “must do” components to this that, if left out, will compromise the outcomes of the partnership. These components would include the following:-

Having an approved a partnership budget; Agreeing to necessary time allocations from team members to staff the actual work; Engaging respective Senior Leadership (and ideally the CEO) in signing off the intentions of the partnership; Giving due thought and budget to conducting research into the partnership objectives and activities; and, finally, paying due consideration to communicating internally and externally about the partnership as it progresses.

Each of these components requires resourcing and needs to be planned upfront, or else the partnership will fall at the first hurdle.

#2 – Learning to cede control of different pieces of the Partnership and to embrace new ways of working. Cross-sector partnering is a two-way affair, on every level. It can be all too easy for companies and non-profits not to appreciate the different organisational norms to which they respectively adhere. “Unlikely bedfellows” was a phrase used to describe the corporate sector, many years ago when I set up a new team inside of an international NGO. My team was responsible for building partnerships with big business and many of my colleagues did not approve of us engaging with companies – many, today, are still not convinced by it either.

Actually making a successful, mutually beneficial partnership between two organisations, who live and breathe very differently, is no mean feat. Success, then, lies in how each might change their habits. For companies, this might be ceding control of full decision making on issues where (with suppliers or agencies, for example) they might usually have the final say. For NGOs, accepting that a long-term collaboration with a corporation will need to support the profit targets of that company, in addition to the social or environmental ones, can be a harder sell to all NGO staff than you’d think.

#3 – The human face of a partnership is crucial, but without the right systems in place, things will unravel. In the sustainability world, whether you are an NGO employee seeking to engage a retail company around ethical sourcing, or a corporate procurement specialist, looking for a local non-profit expert to help with your company’s gender strategy, your personality is often the very first thing that gets you off and running.

An organisation’s human capital is by far one of their biggest assets when it comes to forging and maintaining cross-sector partnerships. That said, it is not uncommon for organisations to make an individual’s roles over-whelming and untenable, by putting them in charge of all the different partnership responsibilities. Too much pressure on one pair of shoulders is not wise.

What many partnering organisations do well, not only to more subtly adjust and improve the quality of their partnerships but also to remove the weight of the burden on their staff, is to set up robust and practical ‘systems’ for partnering. These start with due diligence processes, when choosing a partner, and finish with rigorous surveying of the partnership at different stages. By creating systems that guide organisations on each aspect of partnering, you are signalling that your partnering intentions and commitments are legitimate, and that you are not falling into the trap of partnering for the sake of it.

#4 – Celebrating Partnership successes helps raise the bar for wider industry and Sustainability Goals. With your upfront investments and research completed, your partnering systems set up and your experiences underway (as well as your own organisation slowly responding to some new ways of working because of that) then my last tip is to ensure a space for sharing out your achievements and the organisational learning you’ve gleaned about cross-sector work. Hopefully, by this stage of your partnering – reflecting on the trajectory you and your team have been on – you will be able to log several “wins”.

To be a solid partnering organisation over the long term, will mean conforming to a set of values and behaviours. Typically, these tend to be positive ones. Examples being: being honest and open; being a clear communicator;  seeing perspectives from different sides; taking risks when trying new things; analysing what went wrong; and having an attitude of wanting to improve the nature of one’s partnership. Much like with any relationship, different organisations will find some of these harder than others.

In my opinion, however, one of the missed opportunities with cross-sector partnerships is when organisations don’t share out their ideas and experiences, and aren’t then contributing to consistently increasing the bar of quality on the practice of partnering more generally. There are multiple ways of telling your industry, or your supply chain, or your opposite number at a rival company, your partnering story.

Without these stories, we simply will not evolve the art form of partnering, which will mean our collective sustainability efforts will go to waste.

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