There will always be those who feel the private and voluntary sectors should keep firmly to their own territories, allowing NGOs to carry out their mission freely without compromising their reputation and safeguarding their essential ability to criticise without restraint. It is very healthy that these critics exist- ensuring NGOs enter into partnerships having asked the right questions and feeling entirely able to end the relationship should they no longer feel it is consistent with their mission. Equally, corporate partners must feel confident that their initiatives will stand up, internally and externally, to accusations of greenwash and tokenism. It is imperative that both parties can demonstrate the partnership has impact.
The ambitious post-2015 Millennium Development Goals agenda promises to raise the stakes yet again for multi-stakeholder partnerships. As collaboration between sectors becomes more the norm than the exception, as I believe it must if we are to accelerate the transition to a sustainable society- quality is absolutely key. There are some fantastic resources available to those seeking to set up and run partnerships for sustainability- detailing the nuts and bolts of how best to organise budgets, ensure a healthy balance of power and evaluate impact, for example. The Partnering Initiative is a great place to start- collecting together a vast pool of knowledge from those who have worked in the field for decades and offering case studies, training and support.
Whilst the potential rewards may be great, cross-sectoral partnerships are, by their nature, challenging, time intensive and frequently frustrating. There are many ingredients for a successful partnership, but reflecting on my own experience, I believe it helps to keep the following three things in mind:
Remember that people and relationships matter hugely
Of course, working relationships take time to develop, and cross-sectoral working is not usually comfortable. However, if your partnership team is obviously floundering, be prepared to do something about it. Whether it be investment in training to develop partnering competencies, or a rethink of team responsibilities, ensuring an effective working dynamic is critical. After all, confident partnership managers with the right skills will leave the partnership in the best possible shape to handover when they move on (which they probably will.)
Write a clear Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) at the start but be prepared to amend it
You won't be able to foresee all the ways in which the partnership might develop, but starting out with a clear set of common objectives (obvious though it may seem) is vital. Build in the option to make additions to the MoU in the future, should an interesting opportunity arise- and where possible, keep the document as simple as possible.
Where possible, move towards longer-term partnership agreements
Of course, all partnerships are different and programme durations should be designed to best serve each initiative's aims and objectives. However, there is often a tension between the NGO for whom long-term funding security is important and the company for whom the ability to switch budgets and priorities is equally important. Somewhere in between may help build momentum and commitment on both sides. Starting with a one year pilot and pledging to develop a three year programme, for example, will save administration costs, allow longer-term planning, promote learning and reflection and cement relationships. It is rare that great things can be achieved during the course of a one year partnership on annual renewal, and the burden of yearly renegotiation can kill enthusiasm and innovation on both sides.
by Jenny Ekelund
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