A brief introduction to strategic partnering

Strategic partnering is a fresh approach to developing long-term solutions to complex problems. 

What is partnering?

Partnering is a better way to tackle those seemingly insurmountable problems that confront your community, industry or organisation. Partnering is about collaboration with another sector or organisation to maximise the resources and know-how to address a particular problem. 

Although there are countless partnering examples around the globe, six examples of partnering include:

  1. The partnership between Coca-Cola and the World Wildlife Fund in relation to the protection of water sources;
  2. Gavi, an international alliance providing vaccines with the partnership of numerous public and private sectors;
  3. The HSBC Climate Change Partnership;
  4. Unilever Food Solutions partnering with Yume to address food wastage;
  5. The Second Northern Mountains Poverty Production Project in Vietnam involving partnerships between the World Bank and various public and private sectors;
  6. 'Nganampa palyanku kanyintjaku', a Partnering Agreement between Oz Minerals and the Kokatha People in relation to the Carrapateena copper-gold project in South Australia. 

Partnering is a journey that starts with thinking outside the square. Whilst an understanding of your legal environment is important, partnering is about looking beyond the law for a solution. Without doubt, the law does not always provide a holistic solution. 

Starting the partnering journey may be as daunting as the journey itself. The journey of partnering should not be rushed. The first steps in partnering are the most crucial.

Six questions to ask at the start of the partnering process

We have developed six key questions to ask at the start of a partnering process.

1.     Where do we start?

Before we start the partnering journey, we need to assess the strengths and weaknesses of your organisation or community, and, identify opportunities that may be suitable for collaboration. It would be important to seek out decision makers within your organisation and community to ensure that they understand and support the purpose of partnering. We would seek to identify sectors that may have resources that may help to address the issues identified. The resources may be tangible – like finances, human resources, or infrastructure. On the other hand, the resources may be intangible, like real-life experience with on-ground knowledge of the issue. Indeed, an in-depth understanding of the resources available, the risks and benefits of partnering and the drivers of each sector will be essential to identifying the right partner, and, maintaining effective relationships throughout the entire partnering journey.

2.     Is Partnering right for us?

Once an initial analysis has been completed and sectors identified as possible partners, it will be necessary to assess the risks and benefits of opportunities. This risk-benefit assessment should not be short sighted. Rather, the assessment should review the risks and benefits over the short-term, medium-term and longer-term. Having said this, the assessment should not assume partnering is the best and only option. It may be that, upon careful reflection, other options may be more suitable. For example, it may be that other options may be more appropriate. The appropriateness of the possible relationship should be assessed by asking “which option adds the best value, in light of the risks?”.

3.     How strong is our relationship with our potential partners?

Strong relationships built on mutual understanding and trust will be paramount to the success of any partnering agreement.

Once potential partnering sectors have been identified, it is necessary to identify particular organisations within each of those sectors as possible partners. In doing so, consider seeking out potential partners that may not ordinarily be considered as the best partners. For example, just because an organisation has worked with another organisation before, or, organisations share similar values, their credentials should not be preferred ahead of other potential partners. Interestingly, it is those relationships where partners will challenge each other that will deliver the most innovative responses to complex problems.

4.     Are we ready to partner?

It will be necessary to review the external environment to assess whether the climate is right for partnering. If there is a commitment to partnering and the climate is right, confirm formal internal support from within the community or organisation for the partnering project to gain authority to partner and make decisions on behalf of the community or organisation. 

5.     How do we take the first step in the partnering process?

Partnering should not be prematurely progressed to development until the creation phase is properly completed.

With an authority to partner, it is important to formally invite or approach the potential partnering programs to further develop the relationship and introduce the opportunities for partnering. Transparency about capacity in the partnering process is key. For example, if there is a budget for the project, that budget should be detailed. Equally, if there are concerns about risks, those risks should be explained. All potential flashpoints should be put on the table from the outset so that they are understood and addressed jointly. 

The first formal meetings will prove to be significant in the partnering process. Partners could conduct initial brainstorming exercises to broadly identify ‘issues’ or ‘goals’ (or any other relevant subjects that the potential partners may want to discuss). It may be helpful to engage an independent facilitator for this process, particularly if there are risks of perceptions of an imbalance of power, or, uncertainty about the intention of partners.

Discussions should be brought back to attempting to identify the critical components of partnering. These discussions will hopefully lead to answering, broadly, “What are we doing?”, without suggesting ultimate ‘solutions’ to the issues at hand. It may be helpful, for example, to develop a joint vision, mission and values statement, or, a focused statement of purpose. It may take several meetings to jointly develop and agree to a draft statement of purpose.

Following the development of a draft statement of purpose, it will be necessary to jointly identify key components of a partnering agreement. That partnering agreement will underpin the entire partnering process. The partnering agreement should include several matters, including succession plans for the movement of key personnel within the partner organisations and partners’ commitments. Of most significance will be agreements on dispute resolution and review mechanisms.

All partnering will encounter challenges and investing time to carefully and collaboratively develop dispute resolution and review processes will prove to be invaluable to the partnering process.

6.     Things are going well, what would we do next?

As the partnering agreement is being developed, potential partners may find it useful to schedule meetings or milestones over a period of time, rather than meeting on an ad-hoc basis. In other words, while room for innovation and creating a safe space (free from undue pressure) is important, it is equally important to provide the process to reach a partnering agreement with some form. For example, the potential partners could ask themselves, “What do we want to achieve in the next six months?", or, “How much time will we give to finalising a partnering agreement?".

As discussions progress, and the partnering agreement is nearing completion, parties should seek to collectively pause and adopt a helicopter review of the progress to celebrate achievements and address challenges. This will require open dialogues between the partners and leaders to be continually asking strategic questions of each other. The partnering process is dynamic and continually evolving, so it will require strong leaders to maintain momentum and buy-in. 

The finalisation of a robust partnering agreement is an achievement in and of itself. Indeed, the process of finalising a partnering agreement is helpful to continuing to build trust between and within the partners. It may be the first outcome that proves the process can work.

At the finalisation of a robust partnering agreement, the partners will then be ready to transition to the development phase of the partnering process.

Want more information?

Partnering is not a short-term fix. It requires commitment and expert assistance at each stage of the partnering process.

Contact us if you want to find out how partnering can help you get to where you wan to go. 

Michael Pagsanjan is a trained cross-sector partnering professional. Michael has in depth and practical experience with leading and facilitating partnering projects and community consultation, particularly with Indigenous communities around Australia.