As Founder of Resonance, Steve Schmida has a long history of bringing together unlikely partners to solve big problems. He’s particularly keen on the role of cross-sector collaboration in achieving global sustainable development goals. When well-matched, private and public sector partners can pool their expertise and resources to more effectively address even the thorniest of social, economic, and environmental challenges.
Steve’s perspective has shaped Resonance’s approach to partnership for nearly two decades. In 2018, his insights helped inform the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Private-Sector Engagement Policy. In 2020, he published the critically-acclaimed book Partner with Purpose to help companies navigate partnerships with public sector organizations. And now, as we slowly emerge from a devastating global pandemic, he’s working with staff and partners to reimagine what cross-sector collaboration looks like in a post-COVID world. Below, we get his take.
A Q&A with Resonance Founder Steve Schmida
You’ve written a book on the importance of cross-sector collaboration in achieving business and global development goals. What are the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for cross-sector partnerships?
There are two things to consider at this stage: response and recovery. From the response perspective, we are seeing probably the largest cross-sector partnership in human history. The development of these vaccines is a collaboration between government and industry on a global scale.
As we move into recovery, I think we’ll be much more focused on the rehabilitation of the small business sector—there’s going to be a significant need for partnership around that. In many developing countries, where stimulus and payment protection program loans haven’t been an option, I’ve read statistics that anywhere between 40-60% of small businesses have closed. Given that they’re an engine of growth, I think that donors, companies, and everyone has a common interest in bringing small businesses back online.
Another implication is that everyone has realized the importance of broadband. It’s not a nice-to-have; it’s a must-have, whether in rural Vermont or rural Africa. I think we’re going to see a very concerted effort across big tech, government, and telecommunications firms to close the gap on connectivity once and for all.
How might a partnership look different “post-pandemic” than it would have before?
So many things got stretched and stressed and overloaded during the pandemic that there’s going to be a lot more emphasis on resilience: We’re going to see more partnerships that focus on building resilience within stakeholder groups, but also resilience as a prominent factor in the partnerships themselves.
Also, as a result of the heightened focus on social and racial justice, organizations are committing to greater inclusion in partnerships. When you have elite institutions coming together to solve a big problem, they sometimes leave out other key stakeholders. You’re going to see a lot more intentionality in cross-sector collaboration around inclusion and meaningfully involving local, on-the-ground partners.
What do you see as the major emerging opportunities for collaboration in 2021?
There’s got to be a focus on education and getting kids back into schools. As a society, we haven’t yet experienced the second and third order impacts of this pandemic—particularly on school-age children—but we will. Much of the response can and should be led by governments, of course, but the private sector has a role to play.
Health systems security offers another opportunity: Collaborating to get systems in place to manage pandemics more effectively and efficiently. Hopefully we won’t have another global pandemic any time soon, but we will have one eventually. Here, industry has a large role to play because the private sector controls a lot of the facilities. Companies can also help with data collection and surveillance and in any number of other ways, both at home and abroad.
What would you name as the three biggest reasons cross-sector partnerships fail?
The number one reason partnerships fail is a lack of internal alignment within partner organizations. You see it time and time again: An organization gets into a partnership but hasn’t really socialized the partnership internally, and that trips them up.
The second reason is governance. Partners have to make decisions in a way that’s equitable and inclusive, and they need to get things done. That’s a very delicate balance to strike. There’s often an uneven balance of power between partners. You may have a large multinational working with a small NGO, and there’s going to be asymmetries there. Governance has to be approached with intentionality to get it right.
Another frequent issue is folks who share the same partnership goals but can’t accept each other’s motivation for achieving those goals. Can a company accept that a government may want to advance a regulatory goal through partnership that the company disagrees with? Or, vice versa, can a government agency or an NGO accept the fact that a company may see a business opportunity in solving something that was historically a social or environmental problem? Are they willing to accept a profit motive that is, in this case, legitimate?
What are three key things the public and private sectors can do to increase their chances of successful collaboration?
The first is getting really, really clear on the problem to be solved together. I’m in the middle of this right now with a partnership we’re managing for a major multinational and a government agency. It’s sort of a shotgun marriage where you have a bunch of folks with the same general sentiments on deforestation—and yet deforestation is a pretty big issue, with a lot of different touch points. Everyone’s trying to come together to figure it out, but what’s the problem they’re going to solve? What’s the job to be done through partnering? Getting clear on that is really, really important.
The second success factor is managing expectations across organizations about what partnership is, and what it’s not. The third is putting in place a really clear system around communications. It’s probably better to over-communicate at the beginning, and then you can taper off a bit as trust is built.
How do you select the right partners, not just the most convenient (and why does this matter)?
As I just mentioned, you need to get really clear about your goal. But you also need to get clear about the assets and capabilities that you can (and can’t) contribute toward that goal. Figure out what you don’t have, and then start to look at the universe of partners that could bring those capabilities to bear—whether it’s marketing power, technology, funding, legitimacy, etc. That’s the way to get the best partners over time: being really self-aware about your weaknesses and identifying partners on the basis of what they can bring. It almost always leads to better outcomes than the golf-course partnerships.
Selecting the right partners matters because you’re getting into something where you’re putting your reputation and resources at risk. Partnerships take up a tremendous amount of staff time. I don’t care how big your company is, staff time’s a finite resource. If you’re going to expend finite resources on anything, it’s better to do it right and bring in the partners that can really deliver. Then you can get the maximum impact out of it.
What’s the most common scenario for how partnerships come together?
The most common situation is that a CEO gets together with the head of an NGO or government agency and they dream something up that vaguely relates to their organizations without doing the background research. They haven’t assessed whether they’re capable of delivering against the goals of that partnership, or whether the collaboration incentives align as well as they thought. You see this all the time. In my book Partner with Purpose, I interview Amanda Gardiner about this. Basically, the CEO of Pearson met the CEO of Save the Children at the World Economic Forum, and they clicked. Suddenly, she found herself having to build a partnership in Syria during the civil war. They got through it, but there was really no basis for partnering, and it was extremely painful. It’s not always bad to have a pre-existing relationship, but I think being a little analytical about it—and a little hard-nosed, frankly—goes a long way.
Finally, why would you say cross-sector collaboration matters in 2021? Why partnership, why now?
We’re coming out of a pandemic, we’re dealing with climate change, and we’re going to hit ten billion people in 2050. These are not problems that get solved on their own by one party—there’s no way. From the period of about 2030 to 2070, the world’s going to be in a really rough spot. But I’m a long-term optimist. If we work through it together without wrecking the planet or destroying our civilization, or both, I think we’re actually going to be in a much better place.