Tell-tale signs your Partnership is heading in the wrong direction

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My apologies upfront if you arrived at this post under the impression it would offer up relationship advice. Instead, I’m here to discuss the increasingly common pursuit of Cross-Sector (in particular, business and non-profit) Partnerships, and where they often run into trouble.

In many ways, looking closer at what makes for a successful individual relationship (be it with your manager, your partner or anyone else for that matter) is no bad place to start when it comes to establishing what it takes to maintain decent Cross-Sector Partnerships.

As explored in last month’s post there are some fairly stock conditions and behaviours that characterise good partnering – suitable preparation, clear communications, mutually beneficial goals, openness, honesty and regular evaluation, being just a handful of examples.

Let’s assume, then, that doing the opposite to any of these conditions is immediately going to put your partnership into more perilous scenarios. None of these conditions on their own are necessarily deal-breakers or deal-makers. But, combined, they will provide a robust framework from which to explore and experiment.

So, given an understanding of the types of conditions which are optimal for partnering, what might be some of the more subtle tell-tale signs that your partnership is, in fact, headed for the rocks? Here are some to contemplate:

#1 Early onset Complacency Syndrome.

Each partnership between a business and a non-profit (let’s stick with these two types of organisation, although the rules are relevant for other sector combinations) has it’s own unique context. If we assume that both organisations have done their research upfront, are partnering towards a shared goal, and have made initial investments of resources into the partnership, it doesn’t then always follow that the rest of their partnering experience will unfold as planned.

A symptom to look out for, that can often be traced right back to the early stages, is that of complacency. In my experience, particularly where funding is involved, complacency can occur on both sides.

On the side of the business partner (typically funding the non-profit in some way) there can be an instinctive sense of entitlement. This is, perhaps, unavoidable but still worthy of note. Many relationships that a business manages include those where that business is paying for something. Albeit with an agency or with a supplier, a business and its employees can have a subconscious expectation that they are in the driving seat because it is their money enabling things to happen. If they want a meeting at short notice, or they cancel a meeting at short notice, that isn’t to be taken as disrespectful, because they are the funding entity, so they are allowed to call the shots.

On the side of the non-profit, the side most likely receiving funds, another form of complacency can emerge. Again, this isn’t always the case, but I’ve seen non-profits, who are under pressure for funds, sign “partnership” agreements with corporate donors and, once the ink is dry on the contract, the non-profit moves onto the next funding target.

The over-arching point here comes down to discipline. Whatsoever your reasons for engaging with another entity – in a relationship that you are labeling a “partnership” – it is not good enough, nor sustainable, to take anything for granted. If the fit between two organisations is honest and meaningful then, as with any of the relationships in your life to which you place value, the act of being a complacent partner will hopefully not materialise, nor be accepted.

#2 – Nurturing your Partner’s “Value-Add”.

Let me caveat that “Value-Add” is jargon. An overly-hyped phrase, it flies off the tongue at most Partnership Conferences or workshops these days. However, beneath the jargon lies a revealing symptom.

Companies who partner with non-profits, or with public sector organisations, are increasingly being asked to demonstrate their Value-Add, when it comes to helping address societal issues. A social development organisation seeking to partner with a business is under pressure to do the same. Indeed, worthy Cross-Sector Partners will identify what their Partnership brings, as a combined team. Those in the partnership will articulate what is often referred to as a “Value Proposition” even, and spend weeks and months refining this together.

When done well, taking a systematic approach to Value Addition – in our example, this translates as two organisations clearly spelling out what it is they want to achieve together, how they will be successful, and why their partnership stands out from others – can reap dividends for all involved, and deliver great outcomes for the partnership.

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Are your Partnerships built for learning or do they rely on jargon and platitudes?

However, I’ve seen lip service approaches taken by organisations when it comes to recognising each other’s contributions and, as a result, not then taking steps towards helping evolve and nurture these contributions.

Organisations, particularly large ones, tend to be internally focused, strapped for time, complicated to navigate, and highly political. For those managing partnerships, there is simply not always the requisite amount of bandwidth, in one’s typical day, to spend that critical time learning more about the organisations with whom you are partnering.

This, it seems to me, is a missed opportunity. How might an organisation ever truly partner with another if that learning component is never fulfilled?

To be clear, partnering with another organisation doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with something they are doing (or have done) and it definitely shouldn’t mean you can’t call out bad practice. On the contrary, some of the companies partnering NGOs are seeking that very regular and wholesome critique from the NGOs they partner. Certain companies even evaluate their partnerships based on an NGO’s ability to do just that.

And, yet, the majority of organisations aren’t prepared to invest the time and resources to learn from each other, and learn about each other’s industry.

Which has never made sense to me, given the most rational case for establishing a Cross-Sector Partnership in the first place should be the realisation that your organisation’s goals cannot be achieved unless you work with other entities (and particularly those who bring skills and knowledge to the table that you don’t have).

Without fulfilling a commitment to explore what your differences are, and how you can compliment each other (and, over time, make each other a more rounded and robust outfit) organisations run the risk of simply partnering for partnerships’s sake.

#3 – Owning your Mistakes.

In the realm of Cross-Sector Partnerships there is a narrative shaped around what that partnership is doing (or intends to do) which often relies on a heavy dose of positive public relations. CEOs will pepper a conference speech with crowd pleasing intentions. New brand campaigns are created in the process. Press releases fly about social media. A hashtag is born. And so things escalate.

Behind the scenes, however, Cross-Sector Partnerships are reliant on individual relationships between multiple people. What can happen in the furor of a new Partnership is that individuals become carried away with the compelling narrative, and impermeable to doing wrong. And one thing we know about human relationships is that it’s doesn’t always come naturally to people to accept responsibility for things when they go wrong. This is particularly evident inside the workings of an externally published partnership, high off of its own sense of self-worthiness, and all that it has set out to accomplish.

When things go wrong in a partnership, all too often one side will blame the other (either directly or covertly). It can then be a cumbersome, and ultimately fatal, process continuing the partnership in the wake of an episode where individuals have thrown each other under the proverbial bus.

Much can be done to prevent this from happening (again, the importance of giving due consideration upfront about the nature of a partnership, or then advocating clear ways of working as the partnership progresses, are two such examples). Although the true test lies in people’s commitment to learning and to improving both their own practices and behaviours, as well as that of their respective organisations.

Doing so requires courage, some risk taking and a sharp sense of what it means to do the right thing.

I am sure many examples can be thrown back in my face of situations where organisations did the very opposite of the right thing, burying bad news stories or unethical practice, and lived to tell the tale.

Equally, I have my anecdotes of where my own handling of a sticky situation with a partner organisation was conducted in a way that protected my team from receiving just blame. Regretfully, there are probably more than one of these to recount.

And yet, I am convinced of the fact that Cross-Sector Partnering would be more impactful, with more sustained and productive outcomes, were we to work harder at trusting each other, and owning our mistakes and the times where we might have misjudged a situation. Easier, of course, to say than to live out, but we must try.

So, there you have it.

My three Tell-Tale signs to look out for when embarking on serious Cross-Sector Partnerships, and which apply to you and your partner organisation:

  1. Relationship Complacency;
  2. Not investing in each other’s Value Addition; and
  3. The inability to accept that Everyone Makes Mistakes, from which we can all learn.

Thanks for reading, and happy Partnering!

 

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.

Friday missive from Colombo

I have been in Colombo this week, my last visit here in February coinciding with Sri Lanka’s Independence Day celebrations.

As I gear up for returning back to Saigon tonight, I’ve been combing through this morning’s report out from Donald Trump’s July 4th speech about America’s independence, alongside a rash of social media streaming Anne Widdecombe’s inauguration (which, let’s just say “touches” on the topic of independence) as a Member of the European Parliament.

Widdecombe, in case you didn’t seen her performance, compares those duty bearers inside the European Parliament to “feudal barons”, and the United Kingdom to the “peasantry” – a “colony” seeking to escape from the oppressive regime of an “empire”.

Trump, to paraphrase his day in the office, made a speech with lots of “uncharacteristic” words in it (such as “we are one people chasing one dream”) and then stood back as his country’s military arsenal flew overhead.     Continue reading “Friday missive from Colombo”

Making change happen: Collaboration, and the power of Storytelling

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Children reading Lafaek Community Magazine. Photo Credit Sarah Rippin/CARE

I’ve been working in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste (East Timor) this week, and it’s been a privilege as always to spend time in new surrounds. More so when stationed one hundred metres from the sea, with spectacular daily sunsets, and some of the tastiest coffee money can buy. 

Timor is an island, just a short hop north of Darwin, Australia, and up until quite recently, following 500 years of Portuguese occupation, was an Indonesian colony (between 1975 and 1999). The western side of the island is still governed by Indonesia. Timor-Leste claimed its independence in 2002.

Like so many other countries in 2016, Timor-Leste is experiencing the effects of the current El Nino droughts, disrupting the country’s wet season and ruining harvesting potential. A topic covered on this site back in March during my time in Ethiopia.

My assignment this week, however, has been to support CARE’s work to engage more with private sector companies in Timor-Leste (banks, retail, media and others) and examine ways in which, together, initiatives and relationships can be forged to tackle some of the social and economic challenges the country faces – poor infrastructure, lack of employment opportunities, issues around food security and nutrition, financial literacy, to name a few. Even without a more severe El Nino year, Timor-Leste is dealing with all of these mini crises combined.     Continue reading “Making change happen: Collaboration, and the power of Storytelling”

Partnership musings at 33,000 ft

Photo credit @saigonsays
Photo credit @saigonsays

Over the last couple of months I’ve spent time at various “partnership” themed events. Bangkok, Singapore, Hanoi, even the leafy outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia, many thousands of miles away from the hustle bustle of Saigon. Different venues, but similar take-away recommendations about how, if we are truly to tackle social and environment issues and bring about change in the future, for the future, we must join forces with others.

In some cases, forming alliances which might seem oxymoronic: for example, big business in partnership with local communities; municipal governments working with large NGOs.

Previous case studies on this blog site (where CARE is partnering with companies in the region, including GSK and Diageo) are backed up by hundreds more out there, many of which are breaking new ground and offer hope for replicating models which others can adopt, adapt and improve. Continue reading “Partnership musings at 33,000 ft”

Lending: the new giving?

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Vietnamese hill tribe handicrafts

I live in Saigon, Vietnam, and it’s hotting up once more as we approach the muggiest time of the year.

Luckily, for me, this week I have been in Hanoi and luckier still, yesterday spent the day visiting local hill tribe communities about 180 kms north west of the capital.

Not only did the mercury drop down lower for the day, as we snaked our bus round the mountains through wispy clouds and potholed roads, but we were privileged to meet incredibly talented individuals, tucked away as they are from the life of urban Hanoians, and cut off from the collective consciousness of the world outside Vietnam.

The objective of the visit was as part of an expansion of an initiative in the UK that CARE International have built over the past four years, called Lendwithcare.

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Local hill tribe community
Continue reading “Lending: the new giving?”

Blue pill, red pill

So, engaging graphics and playing-to-the-crowd sentiments aside, the video above is well worth a gander.

The main thrust of its narrative is a warning to all that we risk creating an increasingly lonelier state of self through the persistent use of social media, ironically pitched as social media can be as a way of improving an individual’s ‘connectivity’ in the world.

In the olden days we used to wake up, make tea, brush our teeth and collect our frozen milk bottle off the doorstep. Today, we’re more likely to check our email, Twitter and Facebook accounts before we even dip a toe out of bed, let alone respond diligently to any line of enquiry emanating from other human beings in our house. Continue reading “Blue pill, red pill”