Opinion: What to do with a successful partnership? End it

People shake hands. Photo by: Spot Us / CC BY-SA

The year was 2011 and the idea that the worlds of business and global development were converging was hotter than ever. It was certainly not a new revelation, but for our two organizations — the U.S. Agency for International Development, the world’s largest bilateral development donor, and Devex, the media platform for the global development community — it was a turning point. We decided to do something unusual for a media organization and a government agency: create a partnership.

The result was Devex Impact, an initiative designed to foster a community of practice around the growing role of business in global development. The core concept was to take what Devex does — provide information and insights from our reporters and analysts around the world, and what USAID knows — how to engage the private sector to achieve the global development goals, and use those core skills to bring together professionals at the intersection of business and global development. What began with USAID and Devex went on to include the Department for International Development, AusAID (later the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), and more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies from Boeing to IBM to Pfizer.

Over the past five years we’ve been witness to a remarkable change in the international development landscape, one in which the very definition of a development actor is changing, and where market-based solutions and private companies are acknowledged for their potential to change the world for the better. Our survey of development professionals showed 91 percent believe business has a positive role to play in development, and nearly three-quarters believe development partnerships will grow even more dramatically in the next decade. And we’ve been proud to help advance this new era.

An evolving industry

Under our partnership, USAID and Devex have worked together to help shape, inform and inspire the range of global development actors who are now operating at this convergence of business and development. We established a Strategic Advisory Council made up of international organizations and private industry leaders to help us stay on top of trends and contribute to a global discussion.

As the industry has evolved, so has Devex’s coverage. At the beginning, we spoke mostly of one-off partnerships between public and private actors: An individual project, say, often-times without a mechanism for achieving real scale. Today, we see much broader engagement: market-based solutions that may, or may not, involve for-profit entities but do target broad-based change; impact investing; leveraging supply chains; innovative financing models; and social entrepreneurship among small-scale startups and massive corporations alike. Corporate philanthropy remains important, but companies are increasingly looking for enhanced competitiveness through “shared value,” and donors and nonprofits are pushing for “collective action” to achieve common objectives.

Likewise, we’ve seen that private sector investment in developing countries continues to grow, along with a renewed discussion about domestic resource mobilization. Resource flows from the private sector now dwarf official development assistance, and there has been a revival in the belief that a responsible private sector can contribute to sustainable job creation, which in turn leads to poverty reduction.

These industry changes have been marked by stops and starts, conflicts and concerns, but also significant successes. Many of the triumphs came out of a history of problems or incremental failures that allowed everyone involved to learn and better structure partnerships, relationships, and deals to further common goals. Our partnership has taken a similar path and we’ve had a few stumbles on the road to success.

Partnership challenges and lessons

Devex Impact has been unique in that, as a partnership itself, it has covered the business of partnerships. Through Devex Impact, we examined the latest trends, sought practical advice from business and industry leaders and asked our community to share insights. In that spirit, we would like to share some of our own partnership challenges and lessons learned:

1. Set expectations early.

Bridging the divide between how a private social enterprise such as Devex operates, and timelines and processes at a government agency such as USAID, is no easy task. Especially in the first year of our partnership, we dealt with some confusion and differences in expectations that delayed our initial progress.

We had to agree to how, and how much, information would be shared between partners, as well as what kind of review or approval would be needed to publish content. It was important to both partners that Devex maintain its journalistic independence, so we agreed to uphold a firewall between our organizations. Devex reporters would pursue and publish relevant stories for professionals working at the intersection of business and global development on our Devex Impact site. USAID would contribute its own content when appropriate, but would not influence or control Devex’s editorial priorities.

Another early question was how much content would be publically available, versus exclusive content for paying members. Devex’s business model includes paywalled content, however, it was a USAID priority to make Devex Impact a public good. The partners ultimately created a funding model that allowed Devex to make the majority of content available to all. Providing clarity on goals, roles and processes allowed the partners to better achieve their objective of building a useful resource for our community.

2. Adapt when needed and put the right team in place.

Another lesson learned is that you have to be willing to adapt: What you expect to work might not be the right strategy in the end. For this partnership, one of those early discoveries was the importance of having the right people in place. Once the work of our partnership began, we found that the staffing plan outlined in our memorandum of understanding was not working. Despite our best intentions, unbalanced or unclear responsibilities meant frustration and lack of progress.

We examined our needs, and put a relationship manager in place to guide partnership processes and issues, help balance the interests of the partners, manage priorities, and monitor progress. This allowed Devex’s editorial team to focus on producing content and for the partnership leads at both organizations to step back from the day-to-day management of the partnership. Having clearly defined roles and responsibilities and the right people in place to move them forward, led to greater satisfaction and progress.

3. Secure internal support.

Beyond the excitement of launching a new partnership, internal messaging and communication should continue throughout a partnership’s lifetime. Helping internal teams understand the benefits of a partnership can be critical to gaining organizational champions that can help a partnership succeed over the long term.

For large organizations such as USAID, this can be particularly challenging. Finding ways to regularly share relevant content and resources, holding internal brown bags and reaching out for suggestions and ideas proved to be useful techniques to garner interest and buy-in. Even at smaller organizations, making staff aware of partnership objectives and progress can mean the difference between a short-term project and sustaining results beyond the original scope of a partnership.

4. Plan for the end (not to be the end).

By their design, many partnerships are meant to be short term. They might test a premise, or provide the initial start-up support for a longer-term program. Too often, we find that partners do not plan for the end of a partnership, so work may be left undone or end too abruptly. And, partners are often not thinking about how to sustain a program after funding support ends.

Devex and USAID were clear from the beginning that their formal partnership would have an end date. We set goals on an annual basis, but rather than focusing solely on the timeframe of the partnership, we actively sought to embed our end date into our partnership work plans and objectives. We asked ourselves what long-term success would look like, identified milestones that would indicate progress, and discussed our goals for the platform once the formal partnership concluded. In so doing, both partners were able to plan for a next phase, and we were able to talk openly about plans for continued collaboration.

What’s next

Over the course of our partnership, we hoped to show the expanding role of the private sector in international development, along with a need for, and interest in, dedicated coverage of this area. Through our thriving community, we believe we have accomplished that goal.

Devex is launching Focus On: Business Transforming Development and integrating Devex Impact content into Devex’s broader platform. This reflects our belief that business and markets can no longer be separated from the mainstream development conversation.

This next phase marks the end of the formal partnership between USAID and Devex; a partnership we consider successful in that we achieved what we set out to accomplish. No longer is the private sector on the periphery of the development conversation on Devex; in fact, our coverage of market-based solutions and private sector actors will grow in this new phase. And, we hope that our partnership — through the engagement we were able to secure among hundreds of thousands of development professionals and leading organizations around the world — has helped to usher in this new era in which the private sector is clearly understood to be an integral player in the fight to end poverty and achieve sustainable development around the world.

To get the latest content on the role of the private sector in development, subscribe to the Business Transforming Development Focus Area.

About the authors

  • Raj Kumar

    Raj Kumar is the Founding President and Editor-in-Chief at Devex, the media platform for the global development community. He is a media leader and former humanitarian council chair for the World Economic Forum and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His work has led him to more than 50 countries, where he has had the honor to meet many of the aid workers and development professionals who make up the Devex community. He is the author of the book "The Business of Changing the World," a go-to primer on the ideas, people, and technology disrupting the aid industry.
  • Ann Mei Chang

    Ann Mei Chang is the chief innovation officer at the U.S. Agency for International Development and executive director of the U.S. Global Development Lab. The Lab is the newest bureau at USAID and aims to transform global development through science, technology, innovation, and partnerships. Prior to USAID, Ann Mei was the chief innovation officer at Mercy Corps, an international NGO. She also served as the senior adviser for women and technology in the Secretary's Office of Global Women's Issues at the U.S. Department of State. In addition to her work in the public sector, Ann Mei has more than 20 years of engineering and leadership experience in Silicon Valley.