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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.

Partnering for Good

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Click here http://www.coracleconsulting.net to check out my new partnering venture!

I’m fast approaching 9 years living in Saigon, and the welcoming in of the latest lunar New Year celebrations (the “White Metal Rat” no less) with all the usual anticipation of things to come, has coincided with a flurry of global and personal chapter headings…

Only this weekend I read about the terror attacks in my old London neighbourhood, Streatham Hill, have mourned the initial days of Brexit slipping into reality, genned up on Coronavirus (as my daughters’ schools close for the week as a precaution) and am stomaching the prospect of a future Trump administration, post 2020 election, following the collapse of his impeachment and the latest news from the Iowa caucus this morning.

In home news, Issy and I married 4 weeks ago in Sri Lanka, and this week I am soft launching a new business idea to improve the quality of partnership work that co-exists inside and between the worlds of Non-Profits and Business.

Under Coracle Consulting, I’ll be facilitating training and coaching for those organisations keen to join forces with others to address different social and environmental issues.

So, why should organisations choose to Partner in the first place?

For the many years that I was lucky enough to experience the highs and lows of cross-sector “collaborations,” poverty alleviating “partnerships” and multi-sector “platforms” I never lost sight of the importance of experimenting with the idea that partnering with others can reap rewards.

I saw these rewards not only for those doing the partnering, and those positively impacted by the outcomes of good partnering, but also from the perspective of growing an overall learning about how different approaches to partnering can offer up new solutions fit to tackle many of our existential, societal flaws.

Countless partnership case studies exist (featured on these pages too) that highlight positive practice, and many teaching aids are available (TPI’s Partnering Toolbook, or The Partnership Brokers Association for example) to help guide practitioners.

Over the years, I’ve spoken at various conferences in Asia about partnering, and have supported the work of organisations such as Business Fights Poverty and Elevate (a CSR Asia company) in moving the dial on this topic – in particular, the nexus where international NGOs and large corporations join forces, and together seek to make sizable social, environmental and economic gains.

Overall, it seems to me that there is a significantly long way to go down the partnership road before systematic standards, principles and ways of working come naturally to the many millions of public, private and non-profit entities out there who want to “make a difference”.

What I hope to do in 2020 – global fluctuations in politics and personal milestones aside – can be summed up by these two goals:

  1. To raise awareness about, and demonstrate why, there huge potential exists when organisations invest in partnerships; and
  2. To offer up my time and experiences to support organisations in their respective pursuit of finding the right partner in their eco-system, and then turning their ideas and innovations into important and scalable solutions for as many people, communities and societies as they can.

I’d love to hear from anyone on this topic, and will always find the time to discuss ideas and suggestions for how large scale improvements and enhancements can be made to partnering.

Do get in touch, either in the comments section here or over on the Coracle pages: http://www.coracleconsulting.net

Thanks for reading and have a great Year of the Rat!

Focus, collaboration and proof of concept: notes from a Singapore Round Table

Image result for sdgs"And so to Singapore last week, and joining a group of corporations at a “Round Table” event convened by Business Fights Poverty and Elevate.

This was the third in a series of formal discussions that the UK Department for International Development (DFID) had instigated, to support the scale up of new initiatives for responsible business practice.

The basis for our dialogue in Singapore was straight forward enough: what can DFID, and other government donor agencies, do to stimulate and enhance the implementation and impact of responsible business practice, as part of the collective efforts underway to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs – listed above)?    Continue reading “Focus, collaboration and proof of concept: notes from a Singapore Round Table”

Economic Resilience: Lessons from a workshop in Kenya

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Local market in Westlands, Nairobi

Every day, we each make decisions about money. Weighing up hundreds of transaction options in a single week, our choices are based on quality, value, needs and desires. To do this, we require information and knowledge, and ultimately we crave the security of knowing that we can afford to buy things.

Cryptic introductions aside, this post is inspired by an illuminating week overseas with new people, and offers up some jet-lagged musings about money and about equity.

Last week I was in Nairobi, with colleagues from Save the Children who’d gathered to share their experiences on the topic of “Economic Resilience”.

In a game of ‘Non-Governmental Organisation [NGO]’ Bingo, now would be the time to mark a cross in your first box: Economic Resilience, what a buzz-word (or “fuzz-word” as someone in Nairobi suggested) indeed.

There were 14 country teams in attendance last week, each armed with definitions, approaches, ideas and stories to tell about their respective efforts at delivering projects with local communities that increase people’s Economic Resilience.    Continue reading “Economic Resilience: Lessons from a workshop in Kenya”

Can we really take big business seriously when it comes to the SDGs?

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Gaza, May 2017 – https://definitelymaybe.me/2018/05/11/money-is-power/

It was during a Business in the Community event in the summer of 2006 that I first met Carol Monoyios, CARE UK’s Marketing Director, and responsible (in part, at least) for the fact that I spent the next 13 years working for CARE International.

Carol and the organization’s then Programme Director, Raja Jarrah, had hatched a plan and it was to be my fate, attending that July event, to end up playing the role of their main protagonist.

Their plan was, and remains, a simple one: create a multi-functional team inside of CARE to work with businesses and markets in a new and more impactful way.

What various colleagues across CARE’s system had determined, the year before at a conference in Nairobi, was that there were many ways to work with business and markets, with the purpose of supporting CARE’s mission of empowering women and girls, but these were not being centrally coordinated very well.

Inside of the NGO sector at that time, most agencies who took money from business were using this largely as a means to fund projects. A separate department would then typically manage the organisation’s “market development” programmes – the result being that these two functions were not collaborating.      Continue reading “Can we really take big business seriously when it comes to the SDGs?”

Designing For Good

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Dawn at the top of one of Bujumbara’s stunning hilltops.

At 8am the CARE Burundi team meet on the lawn outside their office and stand in a circle for Monday’s daily briefing. Updates are shared, stories told, priorities for the day ahead clarified.

The team’s Country Director, Juvenal Afurika, closes out the meeting and comes over to my colleague, Dane, and me, “welcome to Bujumbara,” he smiles, “how are things going so far?”

‘Things’ were going well.

We’d landed into the country’s capital early Sunday, Dane from San Francisco via Europe, and me from Saigon, via the Middle East. Several months of preparatory team calls and re-worked excel sheets, carving out the various components to this assignment, were now gratifyingly behind us, and we were finally on African soil.

A few months prior to this visit we’d had to postpone coming over at the end of 2018, as CARE and the International Non Governmental Organisation (INGO) community went through a re-registration exercise with the Burundi Government.

This time, all was going smoothly as Dane and I sought out an inaugural meal by a lake, which we took cautiously, dining just a few metres away from a sunbathing hippopotamus.

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Sunday lunch with a visiting sun seeker. Lake Tanganyika, Jan 2019.

We had flown all these miles for the opportunity to engage face-to-face with our colleagues in Bujumbara. The aim was to share our ideas about programme design, and learn valuable insights from their team about the challenges they faced designing social programmes.

Inevitably, as I’ve seen in other contexts, teams who deliver social programmes in local communities are juggling a number of priorities. In addition to which they are tasked with creating an appropriate set of activities and engagements that will actually be of use to local beneficiaries in the long run.

As I am sure happens at other INGOs, once a funding contract has been won, the clock instantly starts its countdown to that work being completed and reported back on. Increasingly, and perfectly justifiably, donors and the wider world of thoughtful commentators, want to see tangible evidence of change being made on the ground.

So, with the days and weeks ticking by, local partners initially get signed up to deliver different pieces of the work, whilst community meetings are staged with beneficiary groups.

However, even in these early phases, there are many things that can get delayed and compromise an initiative. Obtaining local government licenses to operate, for example, upskilling partner NGOs, or facilitating successful dialogue with those communities who will ultimately stand to benefit from the programme – these are just some of the things that pose risks to the success of the intervention if they are not carried out in a timely way.

Midway through a programme all too often local CARE teams, like our colleagues in Bujumbara, find their diaries crammed full: donor meetings; project visits; liaising with the different internal CARE stakeholders; compiling progress reports; ensuring compliance and accounting for funds spent; and then the inevitable requirement of drafting up new proposals for the next round of funding.

During this conveyor-belt of tasks there is seldom time for project teams to conduct detailed research, nor to properly test out new ideas for future programmes, let alone then validate the different assumptions linked to these new ideas having an impact.

And so, it was in this realm of testing and validation that Dane and I were focused for the five days we spent with our colleagues.

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Dane sharing out ideas on design thinking. Bujumbara, Jan 2019.

Ostensibly, whilst seeking a world in which poverty and social injustice are overcome, CARE is also striving to render its services, at some point in the future, obsolete. Working itself out of being required by others, as opposed to the mandate of, say, a company which would be more akin to the opposite future state.

However, as a company would place emphasis and resources on conducting market research and product testing, so too must the likes of CARE follow suit, if we are to fulfil our ultimate mission anytime soon.

This was the message we were in town to share and to embed.

Afurika himself was sold on this approach. He and his leadership team had taken stock of CARE Burundi’s future portfolio and programme credentials, and decided on a “full makeover”. Their goal being to set the stage in Bujumbara for a new way of operating – one where design principles were going to sit higher up the list of priorities.

To help catalyse this shift, the team rented a building next to their office, and established it as an Innovation Hub – Hub Nawe Nuze. This was to be a new space to bring people together, to engage external stakeholders in, and to broadcast clearly the intentions of this team – Hub Nawe Nuze was to provide the impetus as well as the visual, practical structure in which CARE Burundi could begin its change process.

Yet, even with the excitement of launching the Hub, to actually evolve and to change a team’s approach is another matter. For CARE Burundi to discover, ideate, validate and then operationalise and scale new programme ideas in a way they’d not tried before was going to require new systems and processes, new roles and responsibilities for team members, and a new culture and mindset to absorb and adapt to all of this.

What transpired in our sessions during that week was one step in a longer exercise of accompaniment and learning to which both our teams had made commitments. Without these commitments, championed at the highest levels of the organisations, we’d simply not get off the starting blocks.

Design thinking comes in many descriptions and several INGOs are experimenting with it. At the core of a lot of what I have been exposed to, that has struck a chord for programme teams, is a commitment to organization and to rigour. Some of our colleagues in Bujumbara seemed to agree with this, too (click below to watch some sound-bites from our discussions with them…)

In practicing with our colleagues the craft of “validating a new idea” (which includes largely spending time consulting others and “sense checking” assumptions behind that idea, prior to spending decent money on rolling that idea out) we were merely facilitating the team’s own perspectives and sense of what may or may not work in their context.

In then following up our time in-country with regular team-to-team calls, and subsequently conducting a second in-person session at Hub Nawe Nuze in April, we were able to take our engagement on further.

Throughout these subsequent phases, the CARE Burundi team focused more on securing time and resources for their team to go on to share their new approach and processes with others (CARE and beyond) working in the Great Lakes region.

Not by a long shot does this ripple effect, in sharing out learning and experiences with others, stand out as new and innovative on its own. Nor should it represent the end of a blog post.

The implications of what CARE Burundi have begun to change in their organization will only take hold in the years to come, not the months and weeks between the next Hub event, or the next internal design team meeting.

What has been validated up until this point, however, are a number of previously rhetorical assumptions about organizational change. That change can be good, and that, indeed, you cannot address old problems without bringing in new solutions.

Still, how often do these beliefs and assumptions lie dormant and untested? How often, when it comes to working practices, can we truly say we’ve tried, tested, failed, iterated and tried again?

“Rendering CARE obsolete” will only be realized once we embrace, as CARE Burundi have begun to do, the inter-connected aspects of what that really looks like (new systems, processes, roles, responsibilities, culture, mindset, leadership and so on).

In this way, design thinking must remain a critical catalyst for CARE as we, along with our peers, accelerate towards making good on our ultimate goal.

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”