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From Unlikely Partnerships to Innovation and Impact

December 10, 2020

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Tracy Bain

Director, Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning
International Fund for Animal Welfare

I’ve heard the term “innovative” a lot lately. It seems to be the buzz word that all companies and nonprofits want to be associated with. If you’re innovative, you are doing something right—generating new ideas or solutions and pushing the boundaries within your industry. But what does it truly mean to be innovative? Or, more importantly, what does it look like?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines innovation as “the introduction of something new”. This can be associated with inventors or entrepreneurs that invent a new product, tool or system that changes how we do something or introduces a new element into our world —either on their own or with a small team. However, suppose you look at innovation from an industry perspective. In that case, oftentimes, you find that some of the most creative, forward-thinking innovations have come from unlikely partnerships and a diversity of ideas. 

Historically, many sectors tended to swim within their own lane and partner with other stakeholders they were most familiar with. Education, development, health, and conservation sectors had some cross-over, but it was more the exception than the norm. This single-track approach worked for many organizations that addressed smaller issues or more contained problems where simple solutions fit the bill. However, for those sectors chasing the big, complex problems such as global poverty, climate change, pollution, healthcare access, etc., they found that they were still chasing the same problems after many decades of work. Even when they fixed one, another popped up or re-emerged.

This is the challenge with complex problems. Their drivers are often deep rooted, complicated, interconnected, and require more than one approach to ensure real change. Furthermore, many of these drivers are often systemic and linked to more significant issues such as inequalities in society, political systems, and cultural norms.

Let’s take local deforestation as an example. Local deforestation could be driven by community encroachment, burning for agriculture, or fragmentation from mining or other operations. A traditional approach to solving this would be to prohibit deforestation by increasing security, raising penalties, or buying the forested area and putting legal protections in place. This may be effective in the short term, but the problem will persist in the long term. People will either move to another place with less security or protections or find a way to get into the protected land. The reason for this perseverance is not because the communities living near these forested resources want to destroy them all; it’s because the drivers of these behaviors have not been addressed. Poverty, lack of education, access to healthcare, alternative sustainable economic opportunities are the systemic deep-rooted contributing factors that must ultimately be solved to achieve lasting impact.

So how do we address or solve these complex problems? How do we develop the innovative solutions needed to create systemic change and behavioral change that is rapidly scalable and global in scope?

The answer is unique, unlikely, strategic partnerships.

Let’s look at the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) movement that is occurring across the U.S. right now. We see that it is rooted in ensuring all people are at the table, being heard, respected, and given the opportunities to live successfully and contribute equally in all aspects of our society. This is crucial to ensure we live in an equitable country that protects all human rights and truly is the land of freedom and opportunity. But this is also what drives our incredible innovations, creativity, and progress. Our diversity is our strength.

This same approach can and should be applied at an industry level. To tackle those big, hairy complex problems, we need creative, encompassing, and outside-the-box solutions that are driven best by cross-sectoral, diverse, and unlikely partnerships.

To help us understand what these partnerships can look like and how to make them successful, I asked Joanne Sonenshine, Founder of Connective Impact, to share her insights on strategic partnerships and the secret sauce to their success. Connective Impact develops impactful partnership, funding, and collaboration strategies for international, mission-driven, socially minded, and environmentally-conscious organizations.

Q: Are unique, outside-the-box partnerships advantageous for organizations trying to solve complex challenges?

A: Yes, organizations are more effective and efficient in achieving a goal when partnering rather than addressing challenges on their own. Partnerships bring more capacity and creativity, and unique partnerships lend themselves to differing expertise and perspectives to solve a problem. Successful partnerships leverage comparative advantage– understanding how a partnership makes each party more effective in their program and projects is critical. If an organization has only ever worked in a silo, it will be hard for them to see the benefit of a partnership. Organizations may need a push to think more creatively about a challenge to capitalize on partnership opportunities. Connective Impact, for example, helps with the little push for companies or nonprofits to develop a robust strategy, and then consider a comparative advantage, which brings partnerships to life.

Q: What are some examples of creative or unlikely partnerships that have resulted in successful outcomes?

A: There are a number of active partnerships or collaborations right now that have resulted in great ideas or solutions.  The first I would highlight is the Reimagine Charitable Giving Challenge, a partnership between the Gates Foundation and the human-centered design organization IDEO to reinvent philanthropy. Philanthropy is meant to be an enabler for many nonprofits to function, and focus on solving critical issues. Instead, nonprofits often spend more time and resources meeting funder compliance rather than implementing the project itself. The Reimagine Charitable Giving Challenge will leverage both parties’ notions of partnership to put aside preconceived notions and examine roadblocks nonprofits face.

Another example of collaborative funding is Co-Impact. Co-Impact is a global coalition of philanthropic donors focused on systems change to improve the lives of millions by advancing education, improving people’s health, and providing economic opportunity.  It uses a systems thinking lens to bring multiple types of funders together to challenge traditional proposal development and fund innovative projects that prioritize gender equity and equality. Co-Impact is actively challenging proposals to imbed innovative partnerships in its proposal design.

An example from the corporate sector is Project Last Mile. Project Last Mile is a cross-sector partnership between Coca Cola, Coca Cola Foundation, USAID, the Gates Foundation, and The Global Fund that delivers life-saving medicines and health services to African communities by utilizing the Coca Cola supply chain distribution system and expertise.  Their motto is, “If you can find a Coca Cola product almost anywhere in Africa, why not life-saving medicines?”  What makes this partnership so unique is the method that Coca Cola used to reimagine their supply chain and seek co-funders and supporters to ensure those who most need the medicines and services receive them on the ground. This partnership is a perfect example of comparative advantage. It’s important to know what you don’t know. Coca Cola knew that added humanitarian and medical delivery expertise and experience were critical to make Project Last Mile a success. Thus, they sought partners accordingly.

Lastly, Catalyst 2030.  This is a global movement of nonprofits, social enterprises, governments, funders, and other social change innovators, collaborating to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They do so by coordinating action among their members, facilitating systemic change interventions at global scales, and optimizing funding to support long-term holistic programs. This is a diverse group of actors, coming together for the sole purpose of making change lasting and systemic.

And one additional one I am adding here is the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online. The latter is a collaboration between IFAW, WWF, TRAFFIC and online tech companies such as Google, Tencent, and eBay to stop illegal wildlife trafficking from occurring across their online platforms.

Q: Why did these partnerships work?  What made them successful?

A: The most successful partnerships are engaged in active and continuous partnership strategy building, modeling and evaluating. Partnerships that are continuously evaluating their priorities, being clear on what they want to achieve, and identifying gaps that partners can fill are the most successful. This should happen often and consistently. As the universe of partners can be vast, it’s important to categorize and narrow down to focus on the type of partner needed for each program or project. The end relationship between partners must provide mutual benefit and continue to be built and nurtured over time through continuous evaluation. Steps that can help ensure partnerships are successful include:

  • Developing a shared vision
  • Having a clear understanding of what the partnership will achieve and how to measure it along the way
  • Ensuring there is a comparative advantage and value for all parties
  • Engaging leadership from the start
  • Gathering buy-in from those directly contributing to the project
  • Agreeing upon timelines
  • Establishing clear roles and responsibilities
  • Integrating active learning and adaptive management throughout
  • Putting in place regular touchpoints and communication expectations

For more information, check out Connective Impact’s free resources for partnership development.

There are many benefits for companies or organizations to take risks, dig deep, and consider creative partnerships as a method to drive innovation in their sector. Doing critical situation analyses of the problems we are trying to solve and bringing together various diverse stakeholders to the table will result in ideas that would not have been possible with only one or two sectors represented.

So, give it a try. The next time you or your organization is looking to tackle a complex problem innovatively, don’t just think about solving it on your own. Think about how the global community can solve it– and find those unlikely partners to deliver far-reaching, global impact. 

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