Common Goals Anchor Successful Tri-Sector Partnerships

How the IBM Foundation–Peace Corps–TECHAiDE Collaboration Led to an Expanded Model 

When IBM launched its groundbreaking Corporate Service Corps (CSC) program nearly ten years ago, leaders from across sectors hailed it as the corporate version of the US Peace Corps. Ten years later, the CSC program has inspired the launch of global pro bono initiatives across the private sector—more than 29 multinational companies have followed suit. Today, some 4000 IBMers and 60 countries later, IBM is pioneering a new kind of collaboration with the organization that inspired CSC in the first place.

In 2014, representatives from the IBM Foundation met with the Peace Corps to discuss possibilities for a partnership, and ultimately found a match with Peace Corps Response. Formerly known as Crisis Corps, Peace Corps Response was established in 1996 to send experienced development workers and specialized mid-career professionals on short-term, high-impact service assignments of 3-12 months, rather than the traditional, multi-year Peace Corps volunteer experience. The Response program is smaller, more flexible, and able to explore new ways to engage in a rapidly changing international context.

Motivated by a common goal of pairing their respective participants to maximize collective impact, the partners embarked on a journey to establish a tri-sector model with global implications. PYXERA Global worked with IBM and Peace Corps to find the right local partners to pilot the collaborative engagement in Accra, Ghana. The location had symbolic significance, as it was one of the first sites for both programs. Ultimately, TECHAiDE, a Ghanaian social enterprise, became that critical third partner in February 2016.

Throughout the project planning and execution, the partners uncovered what it takes to make this type of tri-sector partnership work. IBM’s Corporate Citizenship Director Gina Tesla summarizes the reality of cross-sector partnership development in this way, “If you’re not feeling uncomfortable, then I don’t think you’re pushing yourself enough.”

Uncovering the wisdom that instrumental actors in the partnership gleaned from the experience was at the heart of a conversation held during the recent Global Engagement Forum: Live, hosted by PYXERA Global in Washington, D.C. Tom Ross, Acting Director of Peace Corps Response, and Kafui Prebbie, CEO of TECHAiDE joined Gina Tesla of IBM to share their experiences working together.

Gina Tesla, Kafui Prebbie, and Tom Ross at the Global Engagement Forum: Live.

“I was part of the initial discussion with Gina and Jeff West in the office of strategic partnerships at Peace Corps two years ago,” explained Ross. “IBM Corporate Service Corps and the Peace Corps are both leaders in the volunteering space – Peace Corps since 1963 and IBM is one of the oldest if not the oldest organization involved in corporate volunteerism. It’s a natural space for two organizations that have a lot of experience and knowledge to be able to collaborate.”

In addition to their shared history as innovators in the volunteer space, there was an organic fit between the different models of the IBM CSC and Peace Corps assignments. “One of the elements of the partnership that I felt was incredibly powerful and motivating was the idea of leveraging the experience and technical skills that IBM brings to the table with the longer term engagement that a Peace Corps Response volunteer would bring,” said Ross. “The overlay of the two roles and those two organizations would allow us to make a greater impact than either one of us would be able to do with a single intervention.”

Tesla concurred, “The partnership was innovative in that we wanted to take two organizations that, on the face of it, are different but that have a common goal. Part of the success was to have a very clear and simply stated goal. The question was, ‘Can we make a bigger impact together than alone?’”

The partnership was innovative in that we wanted to take two organizations that, on the face of it, are different but that have a common goal. Part of the success was to have a very clear and simply stated goal. The question was, ‘Can we make a bigger impact together than alone?’

Regarding their foray working with a core partner, Tesla found that “having a bit of give and take is essential, and fundamentally, once you get through that phase, the fact that we’re going arm in arm to find the right recipient for our work actually forms even more of a bond. As some of the differences start to melt away, we’re in this together trying to find the right partner organization. There are many more similarities between IBM, and what we’re doing with Corporate Service Corps, and Peace Corps than you would imagine.”

The thorough partner and project selection process led them to TECHAiDE, a social enterprise that delivers Information and Communications Technology (ICT) solutions to improve education, youth development, and health outcomes in rural Africa. As the teams came together to focus on project design and planning, Kafui Prebbie described the process. “If the plan was to work on marketing, then we’d need to match that particular skill with the requirement. That led the six [CSC] consultants to work on two parts of the company. The first part was to redesign our business model and the other part was to work on the new product that we are developing to improve upon education technology in Ghana.”

The team worked quickly to interview key stakeholders and conduct necessary field visits to understand the local context and to gather the information needed to address TECHAiDE’s marketing and business needs. “This process helped them to understand what they had to do for us,” said Prebbie, “These are smart people, who can delve into things quickly, and so we had a very open discussion and though we disagreed and agreed on certain things, we ended with a clear understanding.”

Kafui Prebbie conducting an ASANKA training with students and teachers.

When asked about the challenge of adding an institutional public sector partner like Peace Corps to the traditional CSC model, Tesla shared her unique perspective. “Looking to find the right organization to suit everybody’s needs, you need to understand that you’ll need to be flexible and you’ll need to compromise at certain points, but you’ll also need to recognize, what are the points that you cannot move on. There are certain elements where, for a corporation, we just don’t have any amount of flexibility. It’s important to recognize that each partner is going to have those moments. And hopefully you don’t have too many of them where you’re butting heads.”

For the pioneers of shared value approaches, relationships must begin with the proper justification. “We all have to prove that we’re delivering value from a headquarters perspective,” said Tesla, “and I think that being able to demonstrate the value of this public-private partnership and being able to bring more visibility to both organizations was something that we were striving for as well.” For IBM, CSC is an invaluable asset for the business. “It’s built on the idea of a triple benefit. Benefit for the employee in terms of leadership development, which has really blossomed into employee engagement; community impact; and impact for IBM.”

At the end of the month-long engagement, the partners estimated they had condensed four months of business consulting into one, presenting deliverables including a rationalized product portfolio, redesigned core business processes to operationalize a complex supply chain, and the improvement of ASANKA, a digital content delivery system.

TECHAiDE takes particular pride in sending female technicians into the field, as they are an inspiration to young women who may not have imagined a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

Investing in the next generation of female leaders is a shared priority for the partners. Ghanaian girls featured here receive TECHAiDE support and participate in Barack and Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn Initiative.

The project’s conclusion did not mark the end of the collaboration. TECHAiDE now works in conjunction with Peace Corps Ghana to pilot ASANKA in rural classrooms. Meanwhile, IBM and Peace Corps have implemented projects with organizations in the Philippines and Mexico, and plan to continue supporting exceptional organizations that need assistance in other locations around the world.

If seeking cross-sector partnerships implies inviting discomfort upon an organization, ensuring compatibility at the outset is critical to minimize the burden and maximize the intended impact. For interested organizations to follow the best practices for effective partnership development, we rely on change-makers like IBM and Peace Corps to light the path.

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