Community Development

Forging Partnerships For Impact

October 21, 2014  • Institute Contributor


*This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Chronic poverty, climate change, and collapsing fisheries: bring up any of these issues at a black tie reception and you can be assured that eyes will quickly glaze over. If you are lucky, someone will soon say something along the lines of “fascinating,” before studying the garnishing of the hors d’oeuvres floating by. Yet few of us would deny that government, business, foundations, and civil society have an important role to play in addressing these herculean challenges. And, many would argue that each of these problems has market-based solutions.

So what explains the chronic lack of interest in these issues? And for the few of us who are passionate about impact, why aren’t we doing a better job of implementing solutions? After all, humankind possesses the tools and expertise to achieve the seemingly impossible. Witness South Korea. In 50 years, an entire population has been lifted from sub-Saharan levels of poverty to become one of the 20 richest countries in the world. Or, consider US fisheries. In an era where many fisheries worldwide are facing collapse, US fish stocks have stabilized overall, allowing for sustainable incomes in coastal towns from Alaska to Massachusetts. Lengthy, tedious and complicated multi-stakeholder efforts drove each of these achievements.

As the world becomes increasingly connected — and complicated — it is critical that we harness the power of multi-stakeholder collaborations where they are needed. Unfortunately, even in the areas where we know we need to work together, the process of building effective partnerships is riddled with challenges.

At the Aspen Institute Accelerating Market Driven Partnerships (AMP), we’ve only sampled a small slice of the partnership space, yet because of our high-level partners, which include the US Department of State, top universities, and Fortune 50 companies, we have been privileged with rich firsthand experience of multi-stakeholder partnerships.

If you have struggled with partnerships in the past, rest easy. We can assure you that of the partnerships dreamt up in the boardroom, very few deliver the impact promised at the outset. In the interest of imparting the lessons cultivated through our triumphs and failures, we share seven lessons we’ve learned about building effective partnerships that involve the government, civil society, and business:

  1. When dealing with corporations have conversations with those with P&L responsibilities: In general, corporate social responsibility departments are focused on profit and loss, not the corporate social opportunities that will drive meaningful change. On the other end of the org chart, government affairs teams are extraordinarily skilled at seeking opportunities, but not necessarily the ones that will further your mission.
  2. The mission must be clear and measurable: Before an initiative is publically launched the stakeholders must share a common vision and set of quantitative metrics for success.
  3. Durability of founding members’ personal commitment is critical: The sum of individual expertise, motivation, and connections is the foundation of an effective partnership.
  4. A powerful principal matters: The creation of durable change with a multi-stakeholder partnership will invariably require more time than the average political cycle. A consistent, accessible, and powerful leader is necessary to confer legitimacy, maintain institutional support, and drive partner performance.
  5. Open and transparent communication among partners is essential: Individual decisions that affect other partners must be shared to maintain a high level of stakeholder commitment, critical for a new initiative.
  6. Problems must be addressed immediately and transparently: Every stakeholder collaboration, especially those involving big bureaucracies, will experience unforeseen challenges; addressing them quickly and openly is critical for operational effectiveness, accountability, and morale.
  7. Partners defer to the leader they think is most powerful: In the face of a challenge, an individual actor will wait for the leadership of whomever he or she thinks is more powerful.

Again, these lessons only reflect a narrow slice of the rapidly-evolving partnership space. The work is messy, riddled with complexities, and is often given to moments of high pressure and overwhelming ambiguity. Nonetheless, our shared global challenges are becoming anything but simpler. Our road to a safer and more equitable future will be built by thoughtful collaborators with a fervor for durable change. Let’s build that future together.

Robert Foster is the executive director of the Aspen Institute Accelerating Market-Driven Partnerships (AMP).