Today’s top companies increasingly rely on cross-sector collaboration to solve complex problems and capitalize on new opportunities. That’s because successful partnerships help businesses gain a competitive advantage, enter new markets, boost supply chain performance, advance the Sustainable Development Goals, and prevent human rights violations.
But cross-sector partnership isn’t a panacea. Collaboration with governments and public sector-focused organizations is expensive and time-consuming. And some problems are better-suited to partnership than others. Unfortunately, most organizations don’t realize this until their partnership has already failed.
As facilitators of over 300 cross-sector partnerships, the Resonance team has developed a keen sense of what makes cross-sector collaboration worthwhile—and when it’s better to simply go it alone. Below are seven key questions to ask yourself before you decide to partner. Answering these questions will also help set you up for success if you do partner.
7 Questions to Ask Before You Partner
1. What is the problem we are trying to solve?
People go into partnerships focused on the results they hope to achieve. But results will remain elusive—and resources wasted—if you attempt to solve the wrong problem. Getting clear on the problem to be solved is a critical first step in determining whether cross-sector collaboration is the right tactic.
Partnership experts use a variety of tools and methodologies, such as design thinking and systems thinking, to help organizations get to the heart of a problem. (At Resonance, we employ a proprietary methodology called LABS—or Learn, Align, Build, Sustain—for partnership development.) Whatever the approach, the goal is always the same: unravel your problem until you understand what’s driving it. Most environmental, social, and economic issues have several root causes. Understanding the landscape and selecting the right problem to solve is critical to finding the right partners and developing effective solutions.
2. Can we solve the problem on our own?
If you understand your problem's root cause and your company is fully capable of solving it, then there is no need to forge a partnership. It isn’t worth the resources, time, and effort to partner if you can go it alone.
Partnerships are best suited to complex, shared challenges that can’t be solved effectively by any one organization. For these issues—think risks related to water scarcity, climate change, modern-day slavery in supply chains, and gender inequality—companies benefit significantly from collaboration with global and local NGOs, donor organizations, development finance institutions, and even other companies. Partners can bring diverse assets to the table, such as international and regional networks, resources, convening or brand power, and technical expertise to create solutions that can get it done.
3. Do other organizations need to solve the same problem?
Think of partners as circles in a Venn diagram: Each organization may have its own metrics and challenges, but the partnership team must converge on a core goal. Partnerships depend on having partners who share a problem in common. If your problem is strictly internal or unique to your company, outside organizations won’t be interested in partnering with you to solve it. You can certainly pay someone to be interested in solving your problem, but in that case, you’re hiring a vendor, not building a partnership.
If you aren’t sure whether anyone else shares your problem, get creative. Map the ecosystem of everyone affected by—and everyone who affects—the challenge to make sure you understand who has influence over it, who has an interest or stake in it, and who is a critical player in solving it.
4. Are we mainly after money?
In some cases, companies may have all the tools they need to implement a solution but don’t have the money to fund it. Asking another organization to provide the capital might make sense, but that’s not partnership—it’s fundraising. And while a donor may be happy to bankroll your project with no strings attached, a partner can and should do more.
The goal of partnering is to develop a better, smarter, more sustainable, or systemic solution than you could have managed on your own. By definition, each cross-sector partner should provide complementary resources and skills to augment the development and implementation of the partnership solution. In cross-sector collaboration, large companies, donors, and foundations have much more to offer than money alone. Depending on the partner, they can leverage strong global or local networks, deep technical expertise, technology and R&D, convening power and brand value, and critical supply chains and distribution channels.
5. Are we mainly after good PR?
While positive press and social media attention may be outcomes of a successful, well-executed partnership, they aren’t great reasons to initiate one. A cross-sector partnership is generally designed to last months or years; it’s difficult for companies to remain committed to a project for that long solely based on public relations.
That said, promising partnerships can and should share their stories publicly, particularly if it might inspire others to augment their impact. However, before communicating with the world, partners need to communicate with each other. Discuss and document a communications plan that clarifies what information will be shared and when. Each partner will have a different perspective on this. Keep in mind that some organizations may be required to clear all public communication with legal or other internal teams.
6. Are we ready to help shoulder the risk?
The best partnerships are all about shared risks and shared rewards. And while doing your due diligence before you partner is an excellent way to maximize rewards and minimize risks, it doesn’t guarantee success. Even when managed efficiently and effectively, all projects carry the risk of failure.
In partnerships, risk is shared jointly. If you are looking to shift the responsibility for a new project or initiative to an outside party, a partnership is not appropriate.
7. Is our own team on board to get this done?
Before you formalize any external collaboration, you should be reasonably confident that you can generate internal buy-in within your organization. The last thing anyone wants is to invest time and energy into a cross-sector partnership, only to find that one of their partners has to back out or forego commitments because the leadership team has tabled their involvement.
Map out which internal stakeholders you’ll need to bring on board to approve decisions and implement the partnership effectively. Consider asking an enthusiastic organizational leader to act as an internal champion to help you gain buy-in at all levels. Involve affected business units and field teams in the partnership design to build trust and ensure that you’re addressing their core challenges and needs.
For complex business, sustainability, and global development challenges, you can achieve more through cross-sector collaboration than you can on your own. By taking the time to answer these seven questions before you partner, you help set yourself up for more productive, and more powerful, collaboration.