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This article is produced and published by Devex Impact: a global initiative by Devex and USAID that focuses on the intersection of business and global development and connects companies, organizations and professionals to the practical information they need to make an impact.

If the conversation at this month’s Business Civic Leadership Center’s conference on emerging markets is any judge, partnerships are not only helping drive today’s development agenda, but hold the key to scaling the most successful of those projects in the future. “We can’t do it alone” was a major theme of the event that brought together corporate foundation heads, implementing agencies, and corporate social responsibility executives.

But as partnerships come of age, all parties are hungry for insights into what makes high-functioning partnerships tick. Experienced executives and implementers are quick to point out that not all partnerships succeed; some said they played a “marriage counselor” role at times, balancing competing interests among corporations, non-profits, and international donors to make progress toward a common objective.  

The good news is that as the partnership model becomes ingrained in the way international development happens, the more wisdom experienced partnership architects and facilitators have to share. Below are five pieces of hard-won advice from key players in the field about how to make your partnership work.

1.  Be frank about your goals. Having served with the Acumen Fund for almost a decade, first as a portfolio manager and now as director of communications and strategic partnerships, Yasmina Zaidman said that effective partnerships start with conversations that quickly get down to brass tacks.

“One of the biggest challenges is uncovering what the other party’s priorities are, so we can start to have a tactical conversation about whether a partnership makes sense,” she said. Corporations in particular are sometimes hesitant to share the business drivers behind their desire to invest in development work, and instead talk more generally about a desire to do good.

The key for companies seeking out partnerships, said Zaidman, is to define their goals and articulate them to potential partners. “If your goals are to increase brand equity and improve staff retention, don’t shy away from saying that.”

Implementing partners can move the conversation forward by asking the right questions, said Zaidman. “I always ask, ‘What problem are you trying to solve?’ Then we can figure out if we have a shared interest. Sometimes we don’t, and that’s okay. I’d rather have one frank conversation than 10 longer conversations that end up going nowhere. As a small organization, wasting time is a risk for us: we can’t afford to spin our wheels.” According to Zaidman, for each party at the table, the opening conversations in a partnership are ultimately about finding strategic alignment.

2. Find flexible people. Like a marriage, a partnership for development takes work, said Tam Nguyen, corporate responsibility manager at Chevron. And like a marriage, it’s all about the people at the center of the partnership.

“The major challenge we usually face is people,” said Nguyen, who previously worked the Inter-American Development Bank.

And what makes for the “right” person? “It’s not about being an expert in a particular business area or management system. It’s about being willing to put yourselves out there, to take a little bit of risk.”

Because partnerships for development are still so new, most institutions, whether companies, NGOs, or donors, don’t have the processes, policies or leadership fully in place to support their formation, said Nguyen. “That means you need people who are willing to tweak processes and sell new ideas upward.”

A partnership that looks good on paper, but doesn’t have the right people at its core, “in all probability won’t work,” said Nguyen. “International development is not an either/or world, and you need people with a broad-minded, flexible outlook.”

3. Speak the language. For social enterprises like Samasource, which allows companies to outsource virtual “microwork” to the poor, convincing businesses to partner requires you to speak their language, said Leila Janah, Samasource’s founder and CEO.

“Companies behave like companies, and you have to convince a manager that working with your enterprise is a smart business decision,” she said during her talk at the BCLC event. “If it’s not good business for them, they are never going to partner with you, no matter how many compelling pictures of poor people you show them.”

The best way to make the business case is to focus on what customers care about: cost, quality and turn-around times.

“After four years of doing our work, we have good data on the ROI for companies, so we show them the numbers,” she said. “The social impact is just the icing on that cake.”

Similarly, corporations and donors have to find a common language. An international development may say a project “promotes women’s empowerment,” while a company would categorize the same project as “meeting goals in workforce development and diversity.”

The solution on display at the BCLC conference were the unique résumés of today’s partnership pioneers, many of whom have experience on both the corporate and donor or multilateral level.

“Experience in both sectors is very helpful,” explained Stephanie Fischer, an executive-in-residence at the American University’s’ School for International Service, who teaches courses on corporate social responsibility and NGO management. “You need to know your own core assets and express them in a language the other party will understand.”

4. Maintain a “spider web” of communication. Good communication is essential for the health of any partnership – and it’s too important a job to leave to just one person, according to Andrew Mack, principal and founder at AMGlobal, an emerging-markets consulting firm with a partnerships practice.

“There is a tendency to have communications flow through a single ‘point person’ at each organization, but that doesn’t cut it,” said Mack. “You need multiple high-level interconnections among all the key players.”

A “spider web” of connections becomes especially important when there is personnel turnover, said Mack, an eventuality any long-running partnership is sure to encounter. AMGlobal worked on one partnership involving a corporation, a government agency and a multilateral, in which all three organizations had a change of leadership. “The only antidote for a situation like that is not to be too dependent on one personality. You need enough people involved so there is a centripetal force to keep things going.” 

And once the communication links are in place, it’s advisable to keep the conversation flowing. “Partnerships can be very exciting at the beginning, but if you are working on one, long project, there may be relatively little to communicate about, either internally or externally,” Mack said. “Find a way to keep it fresh.”

5. Remember the end goal. Partnerships can be “painful” at times, said Jeff Dykstra, the founding executive director of Partners in Food Solutions, but they are essential to making a development impact at scale.

Dykstra, a former World Vision executive with expertise in African business, started working with General Mills as a consultant in the mid-2000s as the company began to see more market opportunities in Africa. “The CEO was convinced we needed to engage with those markets,” said Dykstra. Tapping into what Dykstra described as General Mills’ “volunteer culture,” the company began work with local food processors in Africa to improve the region’s food supply chain.

“To reach our goals, we knew we needed to partner with other global food companies. So we started with partners we knew we could work with easily: Cargill, our neighbor in Minneapolis, and DSM, which already had close ties with General Mills.”

The project brought in Technoserve as an implementing partner and also worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development, among other organizations. Dykstra knew from his background in international development that partnering with a donor would bring challenges.  “If anything, I underestimated those challenges,” he said. “Business and government have different drivers, different timelines, different ways of talking about things,” Dykstra said. Working with USAID also meant meeting their stringent tracking requirements.

“There is an investment cost in making these partnerships work. But if you balance that cost versus what it’s yielded, we’d do it 10 times over. Without funding from USAID, we wouldn’t be near the scale we’re at today.”

Indeed, USAID and Partners in Food Solutions announced in mid-October that they will be expanding their relationship to reach an even greater number of local food processors in eastern and southern Africa.

 “The sum of our partnership equals something greater,” said Dykstra, “and that’s what makes it worth it.”

About the author

  • Andrea Useem

    As former associate editor and content director for Devex Impact, Andrea created and managed cutting-edge content on the intersection of business and international development. An experienced multimedia journalist, Andrea also served as leadership editor at the Washington Post and spent three years as a foreign correspondent in Eastern Africa reporting for publications including the Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News, and San Francisco Chronicle.