10 tips for successful shared value partnerships

How do you succeed in creating shared value partnerships? Experts share 11 pieces of advice. Photo by: Flazingo Photos / CC BY-SA

A familiar trope of mismatched timelines, lack of understanding and low levels of trust can threaten the success of development partnerships. Yet while there are no silver bullets, there are steps organizations can take to pave the way to fruitful collaboration.

Devex Impact gathered advice from experts at TechnoServe, Walmart, Mercy Corps, the Rockefeller Foundation and other institutions engaged in public-private partnerships through interviews and discussions at events such as the recent Shared Value Leadership Summit and a webcast hosted by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Here are 11 tips for creating successful shared value partnerships:

Be authentic and humble. Shared value partnerships in particular mean a different way of doing business and require a dedication to changing the way an organization, and its partners, operate. It is important to be honest about motivations and keep an open mind. “If you hear yourself saying that will never work because…, then try and hit the pause button,” says David Browning, senior vice president of strategic initiatives at TechnoServe.

Be bold. Set aspirational targets but strike a balance by rooting them in realism based on data gathered in advance of any formal announcements or commitments. Setting unrealistic goals that are impossible to meet can lead to disillusionment and cynicism.

Be sure you identify each partner’s core competencies. “You want a quilt of capabilities,” according to Zia Khan, vice president for initiatives and strategy at the Rockefeller Foundation. A diversity of skills, if identified and deployed properly, is the strength of a partnership.

Be sure the problem is important for all partners. In order to achieve success, it is critical that partners don’t just care about the issue but that it is truly important to their mission, their lives and the bottom line, Khan suggests.

Be a nitpicker. Details are essential, particularly those dealing with definitions and metrics, which, if not identified up-front, can lead to challenges down the line. Internal and external proof points will be needed for each partnership but drilling down to the detail, with legal departments, about what can be said about outcomes will help frame the metrics. Work to define the nuts and bolts of the desired outcomes and not just the activities of the partnerships.

Be sure you are using the same language. This may be old advice, but it arises from one of the most oft-repeated challenges. The same words can have different meanings to different organizations, one way of making the case can work better for one group than another — and it is essential to work out a common language. Employees who have worked in public, private and/or government sectors can often serve as “translators” as they help to bridge the gaps in understanding.  

Start with a goal or a problem and explore different strategies. If you start with a goal or a problem that needs solving, all partners feel included in the development of the solution and unexpected ideas or ways to tackle an issue may arise. It is critical for NGOs to identify what problems a particular company may face — be it access to clean water or electricity — and then work with them on projects related to those issues where joint expertise can lead to the greatest value and have a greater chance at achieving scale, according to William Farrell, vice president of corporate and foundation relations for Mercy Corps.

Be prepared to pivot. Things have a way of not going according to plan, said Beth Keck, senior director of women’s economic empowerment at Wal-Mart. It is important that partners work closely with one another, talk openly about challenges and find the right approach. Wal-Mart learned that lesson after it bought Massmart, a South African company, with the goal of ramping up the number of smallholder farmers in its supply chain. A partnership with TechnoServe helped to refine the approach; as part of the partnership 1 million farmers in emerging markets will be trained.

Be friendly. Find ways for people who do not usually talk to one another to come together and be in the same room. Browning recommends in particular getting procurement and brand equity teams in the same room. Getting multiple parts of partner organizations involved will help create buy-in and get everyone on the same page about the goals of a partnership. It can also create added value for a project, Browning said. Steve Davis, president and CEO of PATH, suggests working at all different levels of an organization — from top management to those working in country — can also help partnerships run more smoothly.

Be patient. Partnerships — and the workflow changes they may entail — don’t always come easy and they tend to take a lot of work. Patience is key, and Browning recommends working out how long an organization thinks the process will take internally and multiply it by 10 to achieve a more realistic expectation. Building relationships that provide the foundation for these partnerships also take a considerable amount of time and time lines may not always align, Farrell said.

Be Innovative. Creating a space for innovation and growth is critical and challenging. Corporate foundations may hold the resources but are less willing to work on supply chain issues, while business units have incentives but may lack the time or risk tolerance. Create space for innovation and the type of transformative off-the-wall thinking that can lead to greater impact, sustainability and scale.

Got more tips on how to create a successful development partnership? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

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About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.