Radical partnerships: 5 ways to make them work

GlaxoSmithKline CEO Andrew Witty and Save the Children’s Justin Forsyth walk with 25-year-old Aisha and her 5-year-old daughter Leila during a visit in Wajir, in northeast Kenya, last year. Photo by: Sven Torfinn / Save the Children

Ten years ago, it was inconceivable that Save the Children would collaborate with a global pharmaceutical company. A decade on, the landscape has changed beyond recognition, and GlaxoSmithKline and Save the Children have embarked on a five-year strategic partnership. How did we get here and how are we making it work?

It is a well-trodden argument that if for-profit and nonprofit sectors pull together, they can achieve more than working on their own. Radical combinations of business and charity are critical to unlocking innovative ways of helping people live healthier lives and enabling their communities to prosper. Governments, companies and nonprofits alike share this objective — it makes sense for us to work together.

Save the Children and GSK were once on opposite sides of the barricades — and there are still issues on which we don’t see eye to eye. But now, we realize our synergies are obvious.

Both of us want to see fewer children die from preventable diseases. Both of us have tools at our disposal: GSK has medicines, vaccines and scale, and Save the Children has an innate understanding of meeting needs in the world’s poorest communities and enabling access to networks of frontline health workers. By drawing on these complementary resources, we can act more effectively.

No relationship is ever straightforward. This partnership pushes both organizations outside of our comfort zones. But this discomfort is creative — it compels us to think differently in our efforts to help save 1 million children’s lives, be this in the laboratory or out in the field.

So from our first year of working together, what are the five things we have learned about putting radical partnerships into practice?

1. Plan ahead.

Think very carefully before embarking upon a partnership. Effective collaborations are focused; organizations need to decide on their objective and who shares it. At GSK and Save the Children, we already knew each other: We had spent more than three years working together to support training for front-line health workers in developing countries. But our newest collaboration was at least a year in the making. There were numerous conversations before we signed on the dotted line. Not only did this give us an important insight into each other’s organisational practices and expectations; but it also enabled us to define clear activities that drew on complementary strengths. Key areas of focus include developing child-friendly medicines, training health workers and widening vaccination coverage.

2. Be ambitious.

Don’t be afraid to think big. Our partnership is broad in scope. It ranges from GSK staff raising money for or volunteering with Save the Children; to advocating for resilient health systems; to researchers accelerating the development of a gel — based on GSK mouthwash ingredient — that could help prevent sepsis in newborn babies. All this is underpinned by our ambition to help save the lives of 1 million children and to embed different ways of thinking of working within our organizations.

3. Be honest and open.

Partnerships only operate effectively if players bring different — and sometimes opposing — qualities. We had to consider our views on universal health coverage — the concept that all people should be able to obtain the quality health services they need without fear of financial hardship. By talking it through we came to the conclusion that, given public health services are the most cost-effective and the most likely to serve the less well-off, our actions should promote investment in and use of these services. But we also agree that the private sector may have a role to play in delivering health care, as long as it is stewarded by governments and in accordance with the principles of UHC. Honesty is enabled by clear governance and communication structures at all levels. This enables an openness and willingness to share people and ideas. In our efforts to develop more child-friendly medicines, one of the first things that we did was form an R&D advisory board, including representatives of Save the Children as well as other experts in maternal, neonatal and child health. That is unique and GSK is starting to build a portfolio that is driven by input from Save the Children.

4. Scale up.

Innovative practices need to be scalable and sustainable. They need to provide evidence so that other stakeholders adopt and replicate them and have to survive long beyond our partnership’s life span — so increasing results for children. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kenya, we have established programs designed to improve maternal and child health through health worker training, strengthening supply chains and empowering community members to advocate for quality care. The partnership has already reached over 2,000 children with a catch-up vaccination program in the DRC. These programs are developed in intensive consultation with governments and other stakeholders. Ultimately they will have ownership; scale them up; and replicate them elsewhere.

5. Measure up.

Think about how you’re going to measure your success. This has been challenging. We have built a robust monitoring and evaluation framework to ensure that we can accurately measure the impact of all of the interventions that the partnership is making — but we can’t do this alone. So we are seeking support from third parties to help us monitor both the partnership’s qualitative and quantitative impact on lives saved.

When it comes to effective collaborations, we certainly don’t have all the answers — it is a constant and evolving learning process. Radical partnerships are inherently challenging but with focus, honesty and a long-term view, we are greater than the sum of our parts.

Want to learn more? Check out the Healthy Means campaign site and tweet us using #HealthyMeans.

Healthy Means is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Concern Worldwide, Gavi, GlaxoSmithKline, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Johnson & Johnson and the United Nations Population Fund to showcase new ideas and ways we can work together to expand health care and live better lives.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Douglas Rouse

    Douglas Rouse is corporate partnerships director at Save the Children since 2009. He has secured and substantially developed many long-term, shared value and strategic partnerships including GSK, Morrisons, Prudential, RB and Unilever.
  • Jon Pender

    Jon Pender is vice president in GSK’s government affairs team. As such, he ensures that GSK’s approach to sustainably improving access to medicines in the developing world reaches as many people in need as possible, whilst protecting the fundamental business model which underpins the research-based pharmaceutical industry.