Providing education in hard-to-reach communities is challenging. Therefore, it is particularly important to manage relationships, expectations and resources to create sustainable impact. An effective way to tackle complex problems and build systems for change is to craft partnerships.
This year, I’m co-leading a project at Acumen, a global impact-first investor, to explore how social enterprises can impact the livelihoods of cocoa farmers in West Africa. This opportunity aligns perfectly with my prior consulting work with TRECC and former role designing and managing partnerships at Catchafire, a startup social enterprise.
At Catchafire, we managed partnerships with corporations to increase employee engagement through virtual pro-bono projects on a customized tech platform. We launched marquee corporate and foundation partnerships where we were the project manager, software vendor and marketing agency.
At Acumen the story is a bit different, where partners are often funders and in some cases provide capital that will be invested in portfolio companies in sectors or regions that align with corporate strategy. Acumen also leads the strategy, design and implementation of these impact partnerships.
Partnerships require great effort, especially from the social impact organization and it is critical to build partnerships that operate efficiently and actually create impact. With over 5 years of experience in this space, I have gleaned a few insights into how to craft a partnership that works:
Encourage Feedback Consistently
Partnerships require creativity, strategic alignment and resolve. However, corporate strategies, needs of beneficiaries and partner priorities are constantly changing. Keeping up with these shifts by intentionally designing “step backs”, dynamic work plans and sensible funding structures will create space for transparency and honesty throughout the process. You would rather change or veer away from a fledgling partnership than waste resources on it, and if it’s going well, you should know exactly why and build upon it to grow the partnership.
Build In Time to Align Expectations and Secure Funding
Bringing together stakeholders with different incentives and varying abilities to contribute financially makes forming partnerships messy, even with shared vision. Playing the long term game is not an easy thing for corporations or investors to buy into, even if it is their best move. And when you find a well-resourced, bold and patient leader to invest, the realities of a corporate bureaucracy will surely slow down your initial project timeline.
On the other end, the frustration that social impact organizations must rely on funders to move forward on potentially groundbreaking work is a real challenge that may not go away. Perhaps a solution is to co-create initiatives with funders versus presenting an existing offering for their consideration, however that will mean more time and resources to find the right partners to co-create with.
Empathy for the Entrepreneur is Critical
When designing investment criteria and engagement plans between corporations and social enterprise startups, we need more empathy and expectation setting amongst stakeholders. We must consider the challenges these entrepreneurs are facing while operating in developing regions – language barriers, lack of infrastructure, political instabilities, limited access to capital and talent – and keep these realities remain top of mind for our partners who work under very different circumstances.
I believe that impact partnerships – despite being difficult to form and execute – are essential. In my new project to support cocoa farmers in West Africa, constantly understanding the perspectives of the communities we hope to impact, the social entrepreneurs and the corporations is paramount. I look forward to designing even more creative, empathy-driven, feedback-focused partnerships in the future.