In the Realm of Social Impact, Partnership is Always Messier Than Expected

Every few years, a new silver bullet emerges that is believed to be the antidote to all the world’s ills. Developed with the best of intentions, the idea quickly becomes a buzzword inserted into ubiquitous concept notes, proposals, and expressions of interest with little regard for what it actually means or whether it is, in fact, relevant to the issue at hand. In the rush to showcase the “next big thing,” it quickly collapses into the status quo, rather than fostering the disruption for which it was originally intended.

For some time now, partnership—especially public-private partnership—has captured theimagination of the social impact community. Yet, what is touted as a strategic partnership is often skin-deep. Too often, a public-private partnership in the international development context assumes that the private sector company provides funding (and perhaps product) in return for their logo on a website and a feel-good news mention or two; otherwise, the private sector is expected to get out of the way. Even with all the talk about creating shared value, there are still those that believe that altruism is the only way the private sector can and should be engaged with donors and social sector implementers working in emerging markets. Of course, providing philanthropic support, while generous, is not a true partnership. Such arrangements fail to capitalize on the inherent strengths of all parties involved.

Real partnership is like marriage—joyful, frustrating, and occasionally, rather messy. The public, private, and social sectors necessarily have different end goals; in many ways, objectives are what ultimately differentiate them. Yet, a difference in purpose does not necessarily require opposition to one another. In fact, these differences can often be what make a partnership succeed. As Gina Tesla, Director of Corporate Citizenship Initiatives at IBM said recently, “Innovation and great ideas do not always come from agreement.”

So what makes a good cross-sector partnership? How should they be constructed so as to do the most good for the largest number of people? Here are five things I’ve learned over the past thirteen years, most of which I have spent designing, implementing, and sometimes, saving partnerships:

  • Put “why” on the table from the start: It’s important that every stakeholder in a partnership is clear about why this particular initiative is important. The reasons don’t have to be the same, but they shouldn’t conflict!
  • Be honest about strengths and weaknesses: Partnerships work because each party brings something to the table. It’s important to respect these strengths for what they are and to recognize where one party excels or another falls short.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk about money: In any partnership there is likely to be a majority and a minority partner. Each stakeholder needs a clear understanding about how financial reporting should be done and the level of detail required.
  • Talk early and often: A partnership isn’t done when the agreement is signed. Without open lines of communication, misunderstandings develop into real issues that waste not only time, but money and perhaps most importantly, trust.
  • Know when to walk away: All partnerships start with the best of intentions, but not all partnerships work. There’s no reason to assign blame, but saving relationships—and reputations—sometimes means leaving the table.

The truth is there is no silver bullet, which is exactly why cross-sector partnerships are critical to continued success. Some will fail, some will thrive. They are iterative and rarely, if ever, progress in a straight line from launch to completion. Making your partner a true partner requires humility, candor, and above all else, trust.

That said, the most fun and fulfillment I’ve had in my career has been working on programs that bring together groups that don’t usually interact. There is a special energy that comes from looking at the same challenges from different perspectives and then constructing a solution and testing it out.

The quest to address the world’s toughest challenges is a long road, and one no sector can navigate alone. Forging ahead to the elusive promise of progress in partnership, perhaps we should all think less about the standards of perfect, and worry more about getting things done.

Amanda MacArthur

Amanda MacArthur is the Vice President of Global Pro Bono and Engagement at PYXERA Global where she leads the organization’s Global Pro Bono and MBAs Without Borders programs, as well as the Center for Citizen Diplomacy. In this capacity, Amanda designs and implements corporate social responsibility programs for the public and private sector focused on skills-based volunteerism in emerging markets, leadership development, and sustainable economic impact. Most recently, Amanda played a key role in designing IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, while overseeing Global Pro Bono programs for PepsiCo, Pfizer, FedEx, and several others.


  1. Pingback: New Global Citizen’s Best Stories of the Year

  2. Pingback: Five Lessons in Partnership That Can Advance the Sustainable Development Goals - New Global Citizen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *