A few years ago, I was negotiating a complex partnership with a major international company to deliver greenhouse gas reductions through savanna burning. One of the largest voluntary environmental offset agreements in Australia at the time, the project was designed to deliver significant improvements in conservation and avoided emissions over 20 years. It would also enable Indigenous people to engage commercially in trading carbon credits in the international and domestic markets.

It was a big deal for the Commonwealth Government entity I was negotiating on behalf of, it was high risk for the private sector partner (think: deliberately lighting fires in vast remote landscapes) and it was a potentially life-changing opportunity for thousands of Indigenous people across Northern Australia.

While it was always going to be a tricky partnership to navigate due to the high stakes involved, the biggest battle took me by surprise.

The toughest task turned out to be managing the internal suspicion, politics and sense of entitlement that developed amongst the leadership of my own organisation. Yes, the executive management team and Board knew all about the partnership, and yes, they were kept well-informed and up-to-date. But what I failed to appreciate was that there was too much distance between the decision-makers and front-line partnership managers. Even though I had ‘permission’ to partner, the leaders of each organisation were not personally invested in the project, which led to uncertainty and doubt. The focus became all about securing the dollars and the headline, and the purpose of the partnership became lost.

Fortunately, the program is now in implementation and delivering incredible impact on the ground. But based on this experience, my top tip for effective partnering is to ensure the leaders of the partner organisations have the opportunity to create personal relationships early on and that they are not too far removed from the action as the partnership progresses.

Ten tips for effective partnering:

  1. Start with purpose: Effective partnerships start with a shared vision of purpose and impact. At this stage, parties focus on creating the vision and articulating the value proposition for the project, ensuring a strong fit with business or organisational objectives, developing common ground and shared ownership.
  2. Ensure the right partners are around the table: Each sector (NGO, business, government, community) has a particular role to play in society. The parties involved in the partnership should be equally valued and the role each is assigned to play should be consistent with their mandate. There is, however, usually a tipping point for the optimal number of parties in a partnership, above which it can become unwieldy to manage and the costs start to outweigh the benefits. The more partners involved, the more structure, process and formality is usually required to keep things on track.
  3. Securing internal permission to partner: It’s important to secure high-level support from internal decision-makers early on. This includes agreeing on the boundaries and any limits to autonomy that partnership leads must operate within. It also means developing internal protocols to ensure leaders are briefed regularly and comfortable with how risk is being managed. Ultimately, each partnership lead should be granted a level of freedom to partner and innovate so that face-to-face time with partners can be used to maximum effect and individuals can negotiate with confidence.
  4. Ensure leaders are personally invested: This is fundamental, especially for major partnerships. It’s important to provide opportunities for the representative leaders to build and maintain personal relationships that are more than symbolic. Decision-makers need a level of understanding and buy-in. They need to appreciate the purpose of the partnership, they need to be on board with the scope and risk/reward profile, and they need to trust and respect the others at the table. Too much distance can lead to misunderstanding and suspicion, which can jeopardise the partnership.
  5. Be clear on the type of partnership: There are three main types on the ‘partnership continuum’.
    • The first type is transactional, where there is a one-way flow of resources from the dominant partner (the ‘sponsor’) to the recipient (the ‘beneficiary’). This is passive, whereby the sponsor simply contributes resources towards an activity or outcome.
    • The second type is engagement, which is characterised by a two-way exchange of resources. Here, the partnership usually involves one entity engaging the other to deliver a defined set of services (under contract) in exchange for funding, although the process of defining the services or solution may well be participatory.
    • The third type is integration. Partners join together to tackle a common problem and and collectively co-create a solution. This type of partnership offers the best opportunity to maximise strategic value and is most likely to lead to transformational change and true impact. All forms of partnership on the continuum are equally valid – it depends on your readiness to partner and what you’re trying to achieve.
  6. Governance – boring but necessary!: I’m pretty sure most people don’t start their day thinking “Hurrah! Today I will tackle governance!”. However, a clear, workable governance framework is critical for a multi-sector partnership to succeed. This includes attention to roles and responsibilities, accountability structures (both within the partnership and external-facing), approach to decision-making and other protocols. An appropriate mechanism to formalise the partnership, set milestones and define commitments should be signed.
  7. Set ground rules around process: Once you’ve decided on the big-picture stuff, it’s important to set ground rules around process. This includes: communication preferences, meetings, expectations, monitoring, reporting, media relations and more. It’s useful to agree on these ways of working early on and document them in a ‘partnership blueprint’ that all partners have access to.
  8. Build trust and respect: As with anything, it’s the relationships between people that bring a project to life and make things tick day-to-day. It’s important to invest time in building trust, mutual respect and an understanding of the roles and drivers of your fellow partners. Being clear about shared values for approaching the partnership is useful too, with favourites being flexibility, patience and integrity. There’s no substitute for face-to-face meetings, so partners should commit to physically getting together on a regular basis to ensure the team is cohesive.
  9. Keep an eye on impact: There’s so much to do to keep a major partnership functioning well that it’s easy to lose sight of why you came together in the first place. Keep up with delivery, monitor your outcomes, and commit to continual improvement. Be tenacious about impact – that’s why you’re all there – and if what you’re doing is not working, don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board and rethink. Sustaining the partnership includes letting it evolve over time and recognising where you may need to tweak the strategy to achieve your purpose.
  10. Consider engaging a partnership broker/manager: Partnership brokers are experienced in bringing parties together, know what steps are required to build and formalise a collaborative partnership, and will have an impressive set of tools and tricks to keep things interesting. It can also be useful to have an independent party driving the process, ensuring delivery stays on track, and keeping everyone accountable.

Comments? Questions? What’s worked well (or not) in your experience with partnering? We’d love to hear what you think!

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