You have a great idea for a project that could help your organization solve a thorny sustainability issue. What’s more, you think the solution might be of interest to other organizations working in the same region or sector. But before you tell your boss or a potential partner about your idea, you’ve got some work to do. Cross-sector partnerships are a powerful tool if you seek to solve complex challenges. They involve collaboration between the private sector, civil society, foundations and investors, and/or governments to pool resources, expertise, technology, funding, networks, and reach to devise and execute more effective, more sustainable solutions.
But the design phase in cross-sector collaboration is absolutely critical—design can “make or break” your partnership before it even begins. Save yourself (and your partners) time and effort, and increase your chances of success, by reflecting on the following 8 questions as you think through partnership design.
8 Questions to Guide Cross-Sector Partnership Design
1. Am I trying to solve the right problem?
It’s human nature to jump to solutions. But when it comes to complex problems, that’s the last thing an organization should do. A company may be grappling with low potato yields, only to find that the problem stems from gender inequality among the farmers it sources from. A development agency may seek to bring clean water infrastructure to a remote village, only to find that there’s no lasting way to maintain that infrastructure.
Before you finalize your partnership problem statement, take some time to break down the issue to its roots. Methodologies like systems thinking and human-centered design can help you evaluate the larger context at play and identify unexpected opportunities. Once you understand what’s truly driving your problem, you can better map: (1) the potential partners who are affected by and can influence your problem’s root causes, and (2) the possible interventions that might solve your problem or create new opportunity.
2. Can my partners do things I can’t?
Partnership development takes time, money, and resources; it isn’t worth the investment if you can just as easily solve your problem alone. While this is rarely the case with complex challenges, it’s important to verify that potential partners will augment and complement your in-house capabilities.
Look for partners that can fill capacity gaps, e.g., technical expertise, access to end users, or convening power. Evaluate whether the strengths each of you brings to the table collectively add up to achieve your solution. If there are gaps that need to be filled, consider additional or different types of partners.
3. Do my partners have skin in the game?
A potential cross-sector partner may possess the ideal skills, reach, or funding to help you reach your goal. But that’s meaningless if they aren’t invested in solving the problem. Partners who look good on paper but aren’t willing to put in the effort set you up for wasted time, wasted money, and frustration.
Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to gauge a partner’s interest upfront. But you can learn more about what is important to your partners and what core organizational opportunities they want to realize. For a business, that might be more customers in a particular market or a reliable supply of high-quality products. Meanwhile, a foundation or global development agency may be looking for ways to foster livelihoods that also help meet sustainable development goals.
Once you are deeper into your partnership discussions, confirm your partners’ commitment before you make it official. Assess whether your partner has been able to get other key decision-makers from their organization on board. But, mainly, ask yourself: Do I know what my partners want and need, and is the partnership, as designed, delivering core value for my key partners? If the answer to either question is “no,” then you have a problem: The most successful partnerships benefit from highly motivated partners—partners with clear skin in the game, committed to seeing the partnership succeed.
4. Do I have the internal buy-in and support to see this through?
With so much focus on identifying and courting the best external partners to solve your problem, many teams forget to focus inward. Be warned: a lack of internal buy-in can be the kiss of death. It’s the reason many partnerships fail.
To avoid this, you should have a clear idea early on who you’ll need to get on board before and after your cross-sector partnership takes flight. In other words: Who are the key stakeholders within your own organization who you’ll need to have on your side to launch and implement your partnership successfully? To win over those internal stakeholders, make sure you can clearly and persuasively articulate the partnership’s value to your own organization, and that you can answer questions about likely costs and risks. Convincing leadership, key teams, and influential staff of the partnership’s merit will help ensure their support later, when you need it to close the deal and make the partnership a real-world success.
5. Am I missing a key piece of the puzzle?
Cross-sector partnerships often involve international or global organizations who may lack deep knowledge of local context in target regions, communities, or sectors. These larger partners may have ample resources and influence, but they’ll struggle to achieve real and lasting results without collaborating with local partners.
Some local partners possess knowledge of the barriers consumers face, ensuring that the partnership addresses these barriers and remains relevant and useful over time. Others may help you navigate regulatory hurdles or community dynamics critical to your partnership activities. And, in some cases, you actually cannot move forward with legitimacy without including local government agencies or key community groups. Inclusive or open innovation can help identify gaps and invite collaboration with these and other key local stakeholders.
6. What’s the shared goal (and how do we meet it)?
While each partner may have organizational goals it hopes to attain through cross-sector partnership, the partnership itself must have an overarching goal that delivers value to everyone involved. Create this goal together, ensuring all partners are motivated to meet it based on their interests and incentives. Understand what success looks like for each partner, separately and collectively.
Next, set clear activities to meet your shared goal. Be upfront and direct about expectations and timelines. Confirm that partners have the staff time, resources, and commitment to manage their roles and complete tasks on time. Finally, identify a few quick wins to keep partners motivated as they continue to work to secure and reinforce internal buy-in.
7. Is our impact sustainable?
Most cross-sector partnerships are focused on how to make an impact in the immediate future. But, ultimately, the partnership’s legacy relies on making a lasting impact.
Long before you achieve success, you should be asking yourself, what’s next? Discuss early and often the plan for sunsetting, scaling, or transitioning the partnership after their engagement is over. If possible, bake this plan into your initial partnership design, even if the plan evolves over time (and it will).
8. How could this partnership fail?
Imagine yourself three years from now, looking back on a failed partnership that didn’t meet its goals. Invite your partners to brainstorm a list of what went wrong—and then plan for these pitfalls during the partnership design phase and first year of implementation.
Advancing Cross-Sector Partnership Design
Cross-sector partnerships take considerable work; but, when with the right design—and the right partners—they can unlock incredible value. By taking the time to ensure your cross-sector partnership design accounts for these eight questions, you are well on your way to creating a successful engagement.