Cross-Sector Collaboration Starts with a Meaningful Foundation of Partnership

Partnerships with private corporations—especially the large, multinational variety—often cause social sector organizations, and even public sector agencies, to experience extraordinary discomfort and uncertainty. After what can feel like endless flirtation and secret liaisons, hidden from view for fear of the implications of a relationship with a partner of questionable character, nonprofits and government agencies alike tentatively announce their intention to defy the status quo and get in bed with a large multinational company. And yet, calling such collaboration “partnerships” can cause all parties involved to break out in hives, in trying to answer the question: what really is a partner, and when can you call a relationship a partnership?

Is it a partnership when it is still a hush-hush flirtation behind closed doors? Does it only become a partnership once it’s announced? When someone cuts a check? Or only when the ink is dried? A social sector leader recently quipped, “The best day of a partnership is the day the MOU is signed.”

At PYXERA Global, we have struggled with these questions for more than a decade as our operational model shifted from one that just more than a decade ago was wholly funded by USAID to one that depends on give-and-take partnerships across the public, private, and social sectors. Certainly, this was in part a business decision—the organization needed a more diverse funding base and saw the increasing opportunity to engage with corporations. Our organization has been highly successful at this, achieving four-fold growth over just a handful of years, while receiving 90 percent of our funding from the private sector. While client diversification is critical to our longevity and stability, the more important story is that we have learned how to negotiate, create and maintain complex cross-sector partnerships, and these partnerships are returning far greater impact than the organization’s more one-dimensional legacy programming.

Changing not just a business model, but an entire philosophy about a discipline, is not easy. It takes years and a lot of learning on the job. It takes a true ability to see your work from another perspective. It takes a hefty investment of dollars that many nonprofits don’t have. When other social sector leaders reach out for advice on how we made the change, I am always very honest, cautioning that we very nearly put ourselves out of business in the process. As an organization, PYXERA Global now seeks to smooth the pathways to partnership, sharing what we have learned in hopes that others may avoid the endless workdays, sleepless nights, and nail-biting board meetings that we endured over a number of years.

Plus ça change

I often reflect on how, in just a few years, the international development community has come so far in its ability—and incentive—to collaborate across sectors. A dozen years ago, our team was invited to present our work on supplier development to the procurement heads of one of the largest oil companies in the world. We saw an opening to create economic opportunity for local businesses in oil-producing nations. We understood the company’s supply chain needs and how to build the capacity of local suppliers to meet those requirements. We had trained ourselves to speak the language of the oil industry. But when we were introduced as representatives of a nonprofit, the visceral disengagement of our audience was almost audible—to them “nonprofit” equaled only “Greenpeace,” and we were therefore an immediate adversary, a non-starter for partnership and collaboration.

In the same general timeframe, social and public sector agencies reacted with equivalent aversion to the idea of collaboration with the mining sector for community development. We received weekly malicious emails from other nonprofit leaders claiming that we were responsible for everything from displacement of indigenous peoples to environmental degradation, ignoring the excellent results and the community’s strong support for the program. The gentler commenters accused us of “whitewashing.”

Today, the oil industry sees nonprofits like PYXERA Global as critical partners, in supplier development, community engagement, and risk management. Today, some of the very same organizations that maligned our work a decade ago now jointly design programs with big business because they see the chance—the need—to leverage corporate strengths to deliver social value. Here in these pages, USAID touts “co-creation” of solutions with the private sector as a critical path to impact.

And yet, change is still far too slow. The tri-sector partnership landscape is largely comprised of the same global corporations, the same social sector organizations, and the same narrow donor agency departments that really get it. I acknowledge that behavior change is measured in years and decades.  I am also all too aware that partnerships are not easy and, as a colleague recently pointed out,tri-sector partnerships are not just triple the challenge; they are difficult to the power of three. Still, it is enormously frustrating to see the way outdated mindsets can hinder progress.

The continued negative response, by many in the public and social sectors, to partnerships with global corporations may be hard to imagine in a day when the word “partnership” is used so freely, where government agencies in the United States and elsewhere have “partnerships” offices, and many nonprofits now have Directors of Corporate Engagement or Vice Presidents for Private-Public Partnerships. Those in international development especially understand the importance of the partnership agenda, at least on paper.

But time and time again, I hear—or experience directly—antiquated attitudes and expectations that hinder progress. A corporate peer recently shared how the extractive company she represents was refused a paid membership in a thought leadership group dedicated to corporate engagement. The highly influential organization had the company in question deliver a presentation, likely entitled “Why we are not evil”, before it yielded to include them. In another episode, a major corporation insisted on very visible infrastructure activities even though it was clear that local custom would prevent usage of the investment. And what fireworks I’ve seen ensue when a bilateral donor’s burdensome regulations clash with a corporation’s own policies, and neither is willing to give an inch. Clearly, none of the above examples is what I would consider a true partnership, yet in each case the program in question was broadly advertised as such.

On the other hand, I’ve also observed relationships that are, in my estimation, true partnerships that demanded learning, compromise, constructive disagreement, and long-term commitment. Yet, one entity—in many cases the corporation—shies away from calling it a partnership “because that has legal ramifications.” Certainly it is true that there is a legal definition for a business partnership, and I am not advocating for creating LLCs for each joint effort. At the same time, the key tenets of a legal partnership—joint investment, cooperation, and mutual benefit—are at the heart of what is necessary to make a tri-sector engagement function.  Sometimes the arrangement gets described just as a client service, sometimes as a collaboration, both terms that belie the seriousness of the relationship. Why not call it what it is and have the language match the weight of the commitment?

Even though it’s not easy, it’s worth it when you get it right

Like any good relationship, a partnership takes persistent hard work. The more entities involved, the more effort the relationship requires. True partnership obliges those involved to give and take.  With a mission to “reinvent the way the public, private and social sectors come together to address global challenges,” PYXERA Global often plays the role of navigator for the other members of a partnership. We have observed what can make or break a partnership, and advise those seeking to forge effective cross-sector partnerships to do the following:

  1. To understand and respect the goals of each partner. One of the biggest errors committed in forming a tri-sector partnership is attempting to define a common goal. This often leaves every player somewhat unsatisfied. In fact, there is nothing wrong with differentiated—and even disparate—goals, as long as those goals are not mutually exclusive.
  2. To recognize the different negotiation styles and requirements of each of the partners. For the social sector, this may mean having a really good pro bono legal team to navigate the complexities of corporate contracts and negotiate with their legal powerhouses.
  3. To realize that partnerships are for the long term and to exhibit that commitment in the lengths of agreements, and the dedication of financial, human and other resources.
  4. To share, with equal billing, in media, marketing collateral on onstage, the successes of the partnership.
  5. To get out of your comfort zone. This means being willing to leave behind phrases and thoughts around “how we’ve always done it” or stringent corporate standards.
  6. To endeavor to see any challenges or problems that inevitably arise from all partners’ perspectives and look for creative ways to help each get what they need.
  7. To disagree, and an explicit agreement that that is acceptable and even expected as part of the relationship.
  8. To compromise; to decide what’s really essential to you, be it goals or operational procedures, and not dig in your heels on the stuff that is ultimately unimportant.
  9. To be ready to say no, and to walk away when it’s clear the relationship isn’t meant to be. Always give it a chance, and attempt to get things on track after a stumble, but recognize when the partnership is not delivering on its goals.
  10. To embrace honest dialogue as the most important requirement to deliver mutual, meaningful benefit.

The recent ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs, also known as the Global Goals, represents an enormously ambitious agenda to radically change the world in just 15 years. To do so, it is imperative that we broker an increasing number of effective tri-sector partnerships with each passing day.  It is timely, it is urgent, and it is impossible for one sector to move the needle on a single goal alone, not to mention 17.  It won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight, but if we can master tri-sector partnerships and deliver on the promise of mutual, meaningful benefit, the possibilities for a better world are endless.

Photo by Ken Teegardin.

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