The best shared-value partners are aligned from start to finish.
To solve our world’s biggest problems, our biggest companies and nonprofits need to work together—which they often do. At a strategic level, these shared value partnerships between corporates and NGOs have clear promise, for example, to extend low-income populations’ access to beneficial goods and services. Corporations bring the staff, systems, and structure to furnish specific products at scale; while NGOs bring the expertise and community linkages needed to reach the poor and excluded. By leveraging the NGOs’ assets, expertise, and resources, the partnerships may also be able to increase the risk-weighted return of such ventures such that it clears a corporation’s internal hurdle rate.
That all makes perfect strategic sense—but as with so much else in life, the devil is in the implementation. And implementing cross-sector partnerships well is not just a question of each partner excelling in their respective role, but doing it in a way that is aligned in scope and purpose, and coordinated in timing and targeting. It’s much like competitive synchronized swimming.
Yet, often as corporate and NGO partners embark on a partnership, they do so in the manner of a 100-meter freestyle dash—and they usually start in different lanes.
My organization, Save the Children, experienced this firsthand with YouthSave, a first-of-its-kind financial literacy and savings project in which we partnered with commercial banks to design and test the impact of savings accounts for low-income teens in the developing world. In three years, over 130,000 youth in Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, and Nepal collectively saved over $1M through these accounts, with approximately 700,000 individuals receiving direct, SMS-, or mass-media based financial education.
But this success came only after we and our bank partners navigated through the (sometimes rough) waters of partnership building across geographic and sectoral divides. Of the many lessons learned on both sides, three may be of particular interest to corporations and NGOs looking to strengthen shared value partnerships.
Anticipate partners’ organizational cultural and institutional differences. While cultural differences demarcated by national borders are easily recognized, those relating to organizational mandates, incentives, skillsets, capacities, and constraints can be less visible but equally important. For example, as publicly/donor-funded organizations, NGOs are often subject to a level of financial scrutiny that private organizations do not have to contend with. This can result in greatly divergent expectations about the levels of documentation and time needed to process financial transactions—a seemingly minor operational issue that can result in unnecessary friction between partners unless the reasons are well understood on both sides. Though specific differences like this can be difficult to predict, partners can anticipate that there will be differences in understandings, expectations, and processes, and be vigilant to the need for translation across organizational cultures.
Create opportunities for in-person dialogue and relationship building. YouthSave partners came from six countries and three sectors: commercial banking, NGO, and research. Given the multiplicity of obvious (and less obvious) cultural differences across this spectrum, we found that face-to-face meetings were critical for building and sustaining strong relationships. In each implementation country, Save the Children and local bank and research partners held regular meetings to discuss the latest project updates, as well as periodic Multi-Stakeholder Meetings to jointly share findings with the public. In addition, at the global level, YouthSave held annual learning and exchange conferences with all partners. It was at these events that, over time, the increase in alignment and camaraderie among partners was most visible– with unstructured time for informal discussions proving as instrumental as any of the facilitated sessions.
Dedicate resources to partnership management. It is easy to forget that in partnership-based initiatives, relationships are just as mission-critical as those activities that directly produce results. They therefore require commensurate resources. Conference calls may be cheaper than airplane tickets, but as outlined above they are no substitute for dedicated face-to-face time when seeking to create shared understandings across divergent institutions. Resources must similarly be devoted to enabling continuous communication between in-person meetings – yes, through calls and video-conferences, but also through a range of other channels. The choice should be based on partners’ preferences, which may be counter-intuitive. For example, YouthSave had set up a regular schedule of calls, an online repository of project information, and a polished external-facing newsletter – but when partners were polled they selected a simple monthly update email as the most effective internal communications mechanism.
This begs a final point: Just as in collective impact initiatives, cross-sector partnerships require adequate human resources to monitor and manage partnership quality and address any obstacles that may crop up. Ideally, the person or people responsible for this should also be able to assure the type of cross-sectoral translation that is often needed across the for-profit and non-profit sectors. When corporations and NGOs work together for shared value, process may not be product, but it is a foundational ingredient.
Article adapted from Zou and Deshpande, “More than a Means to an End: Three Lessons on Building Cross-Sectoral, Cross-Country Partnerships from YouthSave”, in YouthSave Consortium (2015), YouthSave 2010-2015: Findings from a Global Financial Inclusion Partnership. Washington, DC: YouthSave Initiative.