Navigating the New World of Partnership

Recent years have seen radical change in the landscape of engagement between the corporate world and others battling issues of global concern. The invaluable role that business can play has increasingly been understood as partnership models have brought together corporations, governments, inter-governmental bodies and non-governmental organisations. Effective partnerships are seeing outcomes that are synergistic, strategic and sustainable, delivering benefit to all parties. This guide has been compiled to help companies navigate that new landscape of engagement.

There can be no set formula for partnership, of course, given the variety and dynamics of collaborative models. Nonetheless, we offer this guide as an expression of “collective wisdom” from those who have partnered in the past: listing pitfalls to avoid and best practice to employ so that you may be assisted in finding the greatest benefit the partnership can afford.

Use this guide as best suits your needs. It walks you through a series of modules, which, although linear, need not be treated strictly so. Each proposes questions for discussion, issues to be tabled and tips for practical ways forward.

DIALOGUING in-HOUSE: Dreaming, a little, and doing the homework

  • How would we like to collaborate?
    • Are you focused on a particular issue that your company considers of special interest?
    • Do you wish to concentrate on a particular locale, or work regionally, globally?
    • Do you have specific competencies which you would like to employ in a partnership?
    • Do you wish to partner with a specific organisation or are you happy to go with the best ‘match’ through a network of options?
  • Is there someone to champion the project within our organisation?
    Tip: A champion is not a must-have, but can certainly help to ensure motivation for an initiative of this kind is maintained and staff engagement kept high.
  • How can one find potential partners? Surprisingly, the ‘obvious’ match is often not a fit, and vice versa, so staying open is a critical piece for success. That is one of the main drivers for our provision of an online platform: one that allows, simultaneously, your offer to be placed before a wide range of potential partners. To use it, simply click here, complete the form and the online system will lay your suggested engagement before those for whom it may be a fit.

Once you’ve connected with a potential partner or two, it’s time to sit down and talk.

NOTE: Whenever you put partners together who represent different cultures, there is a need to hear each other, and trust the expertise of the other. This is not always easy because, by definition, those with expertise in one field do not understand why particular requirements matter to other organisations, in their respective fields. Patience, respect, and a listening/learning stance are therefore pre-requisite.

  • What goals are shared? What kinds of global issues might we address as partners?
    • Explain any ideas for engagement your company has considered. Listen for the response.
      Tip: Stay flexible. Your potential partner, with experience on the ground, may suggest a different issue to address, or different engagement strategy, than the one you have been considering.
    • Discover what have others done, or are others doing, to address similar needs.
      Tip: Get to know the landscape surrounding the need you wish to address. You don’t want to duplicate effort, though you may come to complement it.
    • Determine whether an issue, or need, can be clearly identified.
  • What does each partner do well? How can engagement be strategic?
    • The most challenging step is to identify which of each other’s core competencies can best be brought together for a strategic outcome.
      Tip: Move beyond the cliché. This step is often the one that takes time, as you go past the general descriptors of your core competencies to the practicalities of a project that would bring these together. Give it the time it needs.
    • Adopt a listening stance in regard to response.
      Tip: Check assumptions. As you talk, be careful to examine any assumptions you may have concerning your proposed involvement. It is better to be explicit early, than disappointed later.
  • Do we have top / field management support for such an initiative?
    Tip: Get top/down buy-in. Without establishing buy-in at top level, initiatives can stall. Without establishing buy-in from those at implementation level, the project may be lack luster. (It is not uncommon for projects to be determined at HQ in one country, but unwelcomed at field level in another.)
  • How might this go wrong? Identify ways the partnership may not work out and discuss strategies to minimise risk. Consider, too, broader questions of sustainability: your partnership’s potential environmental footprint, along with its socio/economic impact, particularly on marginalised groups.
    Tip: Keep words and works in step. Reputation building is a clear plus for business in partnerships, but progress, on both sides, must be carefully tracked to avoid credibility loss through failure to deliver.
  • Are the right people around the table? Who else might be involved? If other parties have presence in the area, do they have relevant assets, skills and/or expertise which they could bring to your project? Stakeholders of this kind – drawn from civil society, government, or elsewhere in the private sector – can help identify the most appropriate action for you to take, or give counsel on ways to multiply your efforts. If they should be around the table, invite them and, jointly, determine the best way forward, whether your connection with them is formal or informal.
  • Are we a match? Apart from complementary competencies, do you and your partner have commonality regarding core values, goals and interests? Each party’s internal objectives need to be known and respected, together with their common objectives in the partnership. This may include the need for a solid business case that can be ‘owned’ by your stakeholders.
    Tip: Ask the hard questions early. Explore the implications of these different expectations and values on the partnership. Partnerships work best when the partnership satisfies each partner’s own goals in addition to the broader social or environmental objectives of the partnership.

DIALOGUING the DETAILS: The work plan

  • What will we do? Agree on specific objectives and, against them, establish a work plan/strategy.
    Tip: Put points on the board. Given the pressure on partnerships to produce results, internally and externally, it can be advisable to set a combination of short-term relatively easy wins as well as longer term goals.
  • What level of collaboration is being asked for? What resources is each committing? These may include finance, expertise, personnel, product, property, services, or other, as relevant.
    Tip: Strike the right balance. It is important to agree on the level of collaboration. Too little and interest may be lost. Too much and the partnership may be unsustainable.
  • What is the expected time commitment for each partner? Is it realistic?
    Tip: Watch the clock. Partnerships are usually an additional workload for those with already busy schedules. Ensure that the commitment is realistic.
  • Is capacity sufficient? If not, how can it be built?
    Tip: Look in and out. Do you have ready capacity internally? If not, can you build it or will you need to look to resources external to the partnership?
  • Who do we consult? Ensure strategy is sanity-checked with leaders at appropriate levels within organisations and among broader stakeholders.
  • Who does what? Define partner roles and responsibilities to establish concrete understanding outlining what each requires of the other. Establish clear lines of accountability.
    Tip: Rights are not for sale. As well as responsibilities, partner rights should be considered. Are they fair or are they biased? Are they one-sided or equal-handed?
  • What will be done, when? Determine schedule/time line, defining milestones to target.
  • How will we commit? Discussion should determine commitment to be made, whether a legal contract, partnership agreement, MOU or other.
    Tip: Don’t wag the dog. The agreement and legal structure should be driven by the form of the partnership, not vice versa.

DIALOGUING the DYNAMICS: Managing the partnership

  • How will we communicate
    • with those inside our organisation?
      Tip: Answer what they might not ask. The staff in your organisation may be unfamiliar with the other partnering organisations. Tell them enough to be motivated not only about the project, but also those involved. This is where a good champion, for the cause, is most effective.
    • with the other partner(s)? This aspect is the one that most often sees partnerships fail. Establish a clear strategy for communication so that each can hear the other’s concerns, address sticking points or grievances, and adjust to the inevitable obstacles or unexpected difficulties.
      Tip: Learn a ‘language’. Different sectors bring different ‘language’, as well as different skills. Both present communication challenges. Bridging them is of critical importance.
    • with partnership stakeholders? As the programme unfolds, it may be necessary to consult them further, as well as updating them on progress. It is critical to manage their expectations.
      Tip: Cast a wider net. Think creatively as you identify those you classify as ‘stakeholders’. This can deepen the effectiveness of your partnership, both in terms of input and outcome.
    • with the public? Discussion should determine an agreed set of public relations goals and strategies.
  • How will we manage the partnership, in fair weather and foul? Maintaining relationships takes time and ongoing commitment from all involved.
    • Are the partnership’s decision-making principles and channels clear?
    • What will the day to day management of the partnership look like?
    • Does the management structure reflect mutual respect for each partner’s contribution? Was it established by consensus among all partners?
      Tip: Get help before you need it. An intermediary or partnership broker may be a useful addition to help your partnership relationships grow.
    • Is this structure too rigid? Is there the capacity, flexibility or freedom to learn and evolve within the dynamism of the partnership? It may be needed.
    • Who is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the partnership as determined?
    • Are there strategies in place for dealing with staff turnover and succession?
    • Can capacity be bolstered to support the needs of the programme if initial capacity commitment proves insufficient?
    • Can measures be put in place to mitigate external risks and threats to the partnership?
    • Who’s paying for what, how, when?
      Tip: Stay on the money. Different financial calendars and systems, if not understood and accepted, can cause tension within partnerships.
    • What mechanisms are in place to allow for the entry and exit of partners? Partnerships are not static institutions. It is not unusual for different partners to come and go prior to a project’s completion. Given this, it is important at the front end to discuss how a partner’s involvement will begin and end.

DIALOGUING the OUTCOMES: Evaluating and learning

Typically partnerships are evaluated both individually and collectively by those involved. Evaluation brings opportunities to demonstrate the benefits of the partnership and also to learn and improve operations. It is important to build the evaluation process into the partnership negotiations and, once decided upon, implement into the partnership’s action plan.

  • What will success look like?
    • What are the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) against which progress will be assessed?
    • How will impact be assessed?
    • What reporting structure will each partner undertake?
      Tip: Seeing is believing. Consider what role visual documentation, reports and other media will play in the impact assessment and reporting? Are all partners willing to release resources to make these happen?
    • Are we thinking broadly enough? What stakeholders will be included in this assessment? How can you include peripheral stakeholders more fully? Is the partnership bringing any unintended benefits for the partners, the community, the environment? Is it having any negative impact socio-economically or environmentally?
    • How will lessons learned be captured and acted on in the partnership, or in other areas of the organisation’s operations?
    • How will we celebrate the partnership’s achievements?
      Tip: Make celebration contagious. Ensure achievements are celebrated not only by those directly involved but also more broadly within the partnering organisations and beyond.
  • What will completion look like?
    • Will this be a one-off, in which case an exit strategy should be considered?
    • Is there the possibility of further projects if this programme proves replicable and/or scalable?