Knowledge Centre

13 mistakes that prevent and destroy multi-sector partnerships

The private sector is playing an increasingly important role in development.  Companies from all sectors, including especially the extractive and fast moving consumer goods sectors, are investing in development initiatives in areas such as education, health, poverty alleviation and livelihoods, environment and gender equality.

Chasms often separate natural development partners
The impact areas of these private sector social responsibility investments closely maps the impact areas outlined in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and anticipated impact areas of the soon to be adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The MDGs and SDGs serve to guide the development activities of the member countries of the United Nations and the vast majority of development NGOs and organizations.  Official Development Agencies, national governments, multi-lateral and international organizations and NGOs focus development efforts on areas such as education, health, poverty alleviation and livelihoods, environment and gender equality
While the various private, public and civil society organizations noted above approach development with a focus on common areas, they often bring unique skills, experience and capacities to the work.

In many cases these are complimentary and synergistic, at first glance, would seem to naturally invite partnerships and collaboration and the various sectors (e.g., ODA agencies, private sector, NGOs, etc.) even have stated goals of collaborating with each other in support of their development efforts. 

Value is lost when natural partners can’t bridge the chasm that separates them

Simple logic would suggest that collaboration would result in efficiencies and more and better development impact per dollar spent or effort expended.
Yet, the reality is that, while there are notable exceptions, this collaboration is not easy to achieve.  Whether on an individual project level or a strategic organizational level these natural partnership opportunities too often do not result in effective partnerships. 
Value is lost for the organizations involved but the real price is paid by their community partners who do not receive the full impact that they could have received had these natural partners found an effective way to collaborate. 

Here are thirteen common reasons why they start and fail, or even fail to start.

1. Egos of main actors
This is common to the destruction of many different sorts of partnerships.  What makes multi-sector CSR partnerships more prone to ego related challenges is that, in many cases, the partnering organizations will have a general history of opposition or antagonism towards each other.
For industry to embrace and support the role that NGOs and development agencies can play in the success of a business or project is relatively new.  Similarly for NGOs and development agencies to acknowledge the important role of the private sector in development projects.  In many cases the sectors, or at least many organizations within them, have been actively opposed to each other.
These means that in some instances a 180 degree about face is necessary along with an acknowledgement that previous perspectives were flawed.  This can often be overlooked during the giddy early days of a partnership but will often come back in a destructive way as the partnership plays out over time
2.  Didn’t hang in through the tough stuff
Every partnership is bound to run into difficult challenges over time.  Project issues arise, personnel changes, partners have strong opposing views on external issues, finances come under pressure, etc.   Sometimes these come out of the blue and sometimes there is a slow build up over time.
In many instances if the partners can hang in there the issues will either resolve themselves, or they will find a mutually acceptable way to work through them.
However, for reasons discussed above, there are latent pressures in the partnership that can surface when other issues emerge.  This can make it more difficult to work through the inevitable issues and challenges that always show up.
Those partnerships that survive over time will find ways to hang in and work through the rough spots and will also actively seek to reduce the latent pressures.

Conflict and differences of opinion happen in every partnership.  All the time.  
There are ways to systematically prevent conflict and disagreement 
from destroying partnerships

3. Internal buy-in wasn’t there

Multi-sector CSR partnerships are often developed and negotiated by front line personnel with some level of support or acquiescence from corporate and NGO head offices.  They frequently end up in place and operating without ever really getting the attention of key senior stakeholders.
In many cases the partnerships bring both an expanded and enhanced ability to achieve some of an organization’s objectives and, along with that, constraints in other areas. 
As partnership and relations issues arise, as they always will, there is sometimes a sudden realization in the leadership ranks that the partnership has taken away degrees of freedom to act.  This can be exacerbated by historical organizational opposition as noted above.
When this happens you can have key internal stakeholders, who hadn’t really paid attention to the creation of the partnership and don’t have any ‘ownership’ in it, start to question both the partnership itself and the general principle of multi-sector CSR partnerships.

Keeping everyone pulling in the same direction takes ongoing effort.  
Just because everyone pulls together at the start doesn’t meant that they will keep pulling in the same direction.  
Many things can happen to change aligned interests to opposing forces.

     4. Only business is efficient mentality

Historically there has been a strong theme in many business sectors that business is inherently more efficient.  The theme maintains that because it more directly subjected to the demands of the marketplace, business is somehow more efficient than NGOs and governments.
Dig deep enough and you will find that perspective exists somewhere in most businesses and sometimes can permeate individual businesses and even large swaths of industry sectors.
This mentality can surface when problems arise and present barriers that prevent the challenges from being worked through objectively or prevent constructive solutions from emerging. 
Too often you will see much effort being put into finding confirming evidence of inefficiency, rather than a balanced analysis looking for examples of efficiency and inefficiency and their underlying causes. 
This can create a dangerous spiral that can undermine even the best partnerships.

      5. Business is too greedy mentality

The NGO equivalent of the Only business is efficient mentality is the Business is too greedy perspective
NGO partners that fall into this perspective are prone to examining business decisions only from this vantage point and not taking a more balance and objective approach to understand the ‘why’ of business decisions.
Confirming evidence is sought and focused on and more and more partnership and operational decisions of the business are seen as being based, at least partly on greed
There is another discussion on the relationship between greed and shareholder interest, which are often quite different.  Greed based decisions tend to be short-term and with narrowly defined interests.  Longer-term strategic shareholder interests are broader and provide much more scope for interest alignment.
As with the only business is efficient mentality the business is greedy perspective can create a partnership killing spiral of unbalanced confirming evidence.

Strategy and insight can turn opposing forces into aligned interests

        6. Not enough entrepreneurship and innovation

        There is generally a high level of entrepreneurial energy and innovation amongst the partners at       the beginning of a partnership.  In many cases they would not have gotten together to launch the       partnership without the innovation and entrepreneurship of at least one of them.

        As time goes by the partnership activities can become routine and the workers and leaders stop         looking for ways to do things better and/or new areas that they might collaborate on that would be   mutually beneficial.

       Over time a stagnation can develop and energy drains from the partnership.  This can end up  killing the partnership itself but more often it simply makes the partnership much more vulnerable  to the impacts of other mistakes.

Diverse and committed partners collaborating and innovating 
together can solve complex puzzles

     7. Didn’t get to know each other deep enough and broad enough

      Often partnerships will form quickly around a specific opportunity.  Partners will see that by collaborating they can advance their interests and objectives further than they could by working individually.

      This can create a euphoria that tends to generate a forward momentum and the partners don’t take time to get to know each other well enough or deep enough.  This happens at the individual and the organizational level.
      Then when issues arise and differences emerge they are often seen as surprises and somehow a betrayal of what was represented at the onset.  This can put a lot of strain on the relationships.
     8. Organizational stakeholders didn’t support it

      Every organization has a range of internal and external stakeholders, many of which have significant influence and impact.  Sometimes a partnership will develop and create conflict with key stakeholders.
      For example, many NGOs rely on individual and organizational donors for financing and for general support.  In some cases the same individuals and organizations are also writing checks to support advocacy NGOs that are in direct opposition to either the industry sector, or in some cases the actual partner (this can often happen where an industry partner has multiple projects, some of which are actively opposed by advocacy organizations)
      This places leadership in uncomfortable positions and may result in the need to make hard choices if agreeing to disagree isn’t a viable option.
      Similar situations can occur when development agencies begin to develop mechanisms that either enable direct funding of industry led CSR projects or that will facilitate or partner with such projects.
      These development agencies often have key stakeholders that may be generally opposed to certain industries like extractives, or have unrealistic social performance expectations.  In many cases the development agency will also be providing direct or indirect support to the opposing organization.

Internal support and understanding is critical if an organization wants to be a strong partner
(see Seven proven strategies for getting colleagues onboard with CSR
      9. NGOs look at company as just a set of deep-pockets

      A deep and nuanced understanding of the other partners is so critical.  Too often as the euphoria of the early days wears off deep seated, underlying assumptions and perspectives emerge that can be poisonous.

      Partners (individuals and the institutions) forget that all partners are in the project because there is something in it for them.

     NGOs can start to perceive corporate partners as just a set of deep pockets, of money that should just be allocated in support of community and NGO priorities, without a thought for what’s in it for the company and how to optimize value across all partners and stakeholders.
      10. Company looks at NGO as just a do-gooder

      In the same was as NGOs can see companies as just deep pockets, companies can often develop a perspective that NGO partners are only interested in doing good works and not understand the many other interests and realities of a modern NGO
     11. Project solitudes. 

      No real collaboration between partners.  If not nurtured project partners can end up withdrawing, or being relegated to project silos.  This can result in each contributing individually, but can lose all of the potential synergy from the diversity of experience, perspectives and insights that each bring.

When this happens it can suck the energy out of a project and be the start of a downward spiral. 

It may seem easier to carve things into discreet silos and minimize collaborative interactions, and the disagreements, stresses and tensions that can come with them.  In the long run it is far better to work together and get stronger by working through the differences, and staying open to the synergy that can be found in diversity.
As the African proverb says. 
If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.
Good partnerships go far.

      12.      Unrealistic cost expectations

      Cost expectations can be unrealistic.  Companies will sometimes think that NGOs will almost work for free, forgetting that they too have organizational and institutional overhead that needs to be covered.

      NGOs will sometimes think that companies have tons of money and shouldn’t be concerned about cost.

13.      Different standards around quality, flexibility / adaptability and reporting

This can be especially true when small, nimble companies partner with development agencies that have seemingly incomprehensible sets of reporting and operational requirements. 

This can be especially true in partnerships where one partner comes with compliance requirements and obligations that are foreign to the other.

      Multi-sector CSR partners can bring unique pieces of the puzzle to the table. They can create value and mitigate risk for all partners, and benefit society in the process.

      Often they can be difficult to create and even more difficult to maintain, but the effort can be worth it.

Prof. Wayne Dunn

Wayne Dunn is an award-winning global sustainability expert with extensive teaching, writing, lecturing and advisory service experience. He is supported by an extensive faculty and advisory team.