Partnership Development -Innovation & Acceleration

How to Build a Partnership Across Sectors (Q&A)

Interview | April 29, 2021

As we’ve seen through the COVID crisis, the world is more interdependent than ever before, and effective collaboration is even more important as we enter a post-COVID world.  The public and private sectors are increasingly converging around health, economic development, and environmental issues to help move forward from more than a year of crisis. While there have been many effective partnerships between global development organizations and global business, many see a drop in momentum after the partnership is formed and announced.

James Bernard, Vice President of Resonance Impact Advisory Services, explains what it takes to not just launch, but effectively build a partnership across sectors.

Q&A with James Bernard, Vice President, Resonance Impact Advisory Services 

The private sector is increasingly bringing resources to the table to help solve some of the world’s toughest development challenges. Why?

Customers, shareholders, and employees are demanding that companies take new, more socially conscious approaches to their business. In the next 10 years, we expect to see the lines blur further between corporate strategy and corporate sustainability. Our corporate clients no longer see sustainable business practice as a choice, but as an integral and long-term part of their business strategy.

This is shared value in its purest sense, but even that’s not enough; businesses that don’t build effective partnerships to help them adapt to address global challenges faced by their suppliers and customers—like we’ve seen with COVID-19—will be left behind. Many companies are aware that emerging markets are important in their supply chains and represent large and growing markets. However, forward-thinking companies also recognize that they alone can’t address all the social and economic issues faced in these countries.

We believe strongly that the post-COVID world will represent a new era of collaboration, where a variety of stakeholders will need to come together to address the significant challenges facing our world.

In recent years, the global development community has made an effort to see the private sector as a partner vs. a pocketbook. Has this increased the opportunity for further collaboration between the two?

In the past, cross-sector partnerships centered on corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs or philanthropic donations to support international development projects. This funding often tended to be short-term and surgical and had limitations in driving long-term social and business outcomes, because the funding wasn’t always tied to core business objectives and activities.

As a result, many international development organizations—including USAID—have adapted their approaches to recognize that companies bring so much more to the table, including research and development resources, distribution expertise, supply chain management, business networks, market leverage, and technical expertise. This understanding has begun to foster partnerships that have measurable value for both companies and global development organizations.

What does it take to bring cross-sector collaboration to fruition?

Despite interest and goodwill on all sides, forming effective, meaningful, and measurable cross-sector partnerships can be very difficult. First, negotiating a signed agreement can be a time-consuming endeavor.

There are many reasons for this:

  • corporations and global development organizations use different terminology to mean the same things;
  • the speed to action can be quite different—companies are focused on quarterly results, while development organizations tend to work on long-term systems change; organizations may measure success using different metrics;
  • and partners don’t always have a mutual understanding of the mission, dynamics, or politics of organizations from different sectors.

It’s important to remember that building partnerships is a process. It takes time to identify complementary strengths and interests, define where and how to engage, and to consider the roles and responsibilities of each party. Reaching alignment can be so tough that sometimes the energy, goodwill, and momentum gets expended during the scoping phase of a partnership—before it ever even gets off the ground. However, signing a partnership agreement is really just the starting line.

What are some concrete steps that ensure partnerships become actionable, and that energy and commitment remain high once an agreement is signed?

There are several strategies that help move partners from alignment to action.

1. Get the right people at the table.

Sometimes partnerships are forged between high-level decision-makers or executives in the absence of the field teams who will be responsible for on-the-ground implementation, leading to misalignment between intent and the reality on the ground. Other times, partnerships rely on a few passionate and committed people at each organization. Then, momentum is lost when one key person leaves their position or is transferred to a new job. The most successful partnerships engage a wide range of stakeholders—from HQ to the field—and bring them together in an intentional co-creation process that anticipates and plans for possible implementation challenges.

2. Establish clear goals and outcomes that are relevant for each party and the partnership.

Goals should be realistic, measurable, and achievable for each party in a partnership and for the broader partnership itself. Partnerships often fail due to misalignment of goals and outcomes, or misunderstandings about timelines and deliverables. Partners should employ a regular cadence (quarterly at a minimum) of check-in meetings to assess progress and adjust timelines or activities as needed.

3. Determine the governance structure.

It may seem like the most uninteresting aspect of any collaborative relationship, but establishing a strong and well-defined governance process is critical to the long-term success of the partnership. During the planning and co-creation phase, leaders from each organization should spend time discussing and documenting exactly how the partnership is going to work. Who is going to have final decision rights? How do conflicts get de-escalated and mediated? Will a secretariat manage the partnership, or is it up to each organization to contribute time and resources toward management? These are just a few of the critical questions that should be answered.

4. Create an action plan.

Similar to the point on governance above, cross-sector partners should spend time mapping out the activities that will make their collaboration function. In other words, what is the action or workplan that operationalizes the partnership? Who is going to do what and when? How will the commitments of each partner be managed? Who will communicate and how often? What are the agreed-to deliverables and when are they due? And what are the “quick wins” that partners can achieve early on, to reinforce buy-in and momentum? Lay this out in writing in a clear action plan and come back to it often to assess the success of the partnership, make changes to the plan, or even make the decision to stop working together.

5. Build trust.

Without trust, transparency, and open communication, the partnership will be much less likely to succeed. It’s important that stakeholders put issues on the table and create an environment – even during tough negotiations – of trust and empathy. 

You’ve been working in multi-sector partnerships for 25 years. What are some cross-sector partnership initiatives that inspire you?

Resonance recently negotiated a five-year, $20M partnership between USAID and PepsiCo to help prove the business case for women’s economic empowerment—that is, demonstrating that elevating women in supply chains can lead to greater business growth, profitability, and sustainability. This partnership is active now, with USAID and PepsiCo working together to strengthen women’s agricultural skills and access to resources within PepsiCo’s supply chains. Together, they’ll work to create new models and approaches and uncover new data and insights to make the business case for scaling investments in women’s economic empowerment within PepsiCo and other global companies.

Another: Unilever’s TRANSFORM is a cross-sector alliance with the public sector, other companies, and civil society to provide grant funding and a suite of business support to scale social enterprises, focused on health, water and sanitation, energy and the environment, and now COVID-19. Over the past 6 years, TRANSFORM has invested in 56 social enterprises across 13 countries.

Partnerships like these show what can be accomplished when we combine company networks and resources with the insights, co-investment, and reach of the global development community. 

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