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Mapping your Partnership Journey: A Complete Guide for Businesses

Consumers today expect businesses to deliver benefits back to the planet, society, and communities. For instance, a recent Nielsen survey showed rising consumer demand for sustainable products. It found 71% of surveyed consumers were willing to change their buying habits to reduce their environmental impact. 

The study showed consumers not only prefer sustainable products but are willing to pay more for them. With consumer support on the rise for more environmentally and socially conscious business practices, all businesses must find ways to become more sustainable.

Partnerships can help you achieve this goal by enabling you to incorporate new practices and achieve positive environmental and social impact. 

Partnerships help you solve complex challenges by leveraging others’ strengths and pooling resources, to achieve a shared impact goal.

Because potential partners are everywhere, and in every element of our work, you should consider which are the best fit, and weigh each partnership opportunity according to the assets each partner brings.

This guide will show why partners are critical to helping advance the impact of your business, potential for profit and the positive role you can play in society.

KEY TERMS

Partnership: Leveraging another organization’s strengths to achieve a shared goal. 

Impact: A change caused by an action. Actions can create both positive and adverse impacts. 

Comparative Advantage: The ability of an individual or entity to carry out an activity more efficiently than another individual or entity. 

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): A collection of 17 global goals designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”. The SDGs, set in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and intended to be achieved by the year 2030, are part of UN Resolution 70/1, the 2030 Agenda.

Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E): An oversight methodology to track and assess the outcomes of actions that are being conducted to achieve a clear goal.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): The integration of social and environmental practices into business. 

Mission Creep: The expansion of objectives or activities beyond the intended scope.

Why Seek Partnership?

Many companies are adapting their corporate social responsibility (CSR) and social impact goals to align with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals, divided into 17 specific categories, have become widely adopted guidelines for giving back to society. 

They are not simple to address, however. It won’t be easy achieve “no poverty,” or “clean water and sanitation for all,” or “zero hunger,” for example. At the same time, consumers are increasingly voting with their wallets to demand responsible business practices that advance these goals. 

It is overwhelming and unrealistic for any one company to solve these problems on their own. 

So how does a company address these complex challenges and turn the opportunities into action?

Partnerships allow businesses to work across private and public sectors, find ways to address the challenges that consumers want them to engage in, and limit the time and money resources needed to do so. This ensures companies can be both purposeful and profitable

How does a business find the right partner?

Start by figuring out what positive impact you can achieve, given limited time, expertise and money and find partners that are keen to do the same.

The 6 steps to partnering for impact follow below.

STEP 1: BEGIN BY LOOKING INWARD

To set up a successful partnership, you must first start by assessing your own business goals, strengths and weakness. 

If you are a company with any element of social impact planning, you may have priorities in place already, or maybe you have plans to develop priorities around issues like environmental sustainability soon. Maybe you have a recycling program in place, for example, or maybe you provide composting in your facility to reduce food waste. 

There are many different ways your company can be a positive influencer on social or environmental impact. The key is to figure out which programs generate profit, and which ones are long-term viable investments for your business.  

The following activity will help you define your own impact goals and highest priorities.  

As you’re going through it, consider the types of things your company is working on that have strong social impact elements. For instance:

  • What’s helping marginalized communities that are part of your supply chain?
  • What’s drawing the attention of your customers?
  • What’s exciting your employees?
  • What’s resonating with your colleagues or in discussions about your business?

If you don’t have any ideas, ask your employees and discuss starting something that interests them. Or get a sense of what your peer companies are doing. 

Activity 1: Use our Prioritization Check-List 

List 5 social and environmental causes that you care about personally
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
Within this list, pick 3 causes in which your business could engage or is already engaged
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2.
3.
Using the 3 causes listed above, list one big-picture, purposeful goal for each (they do not need to be time-bound but should be measurable)
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2.
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Now, narrow down to 2 goals you think would be most interesting for your business. Think of your customers, employees and stakeholders.
1.
2.

After going through the checklist, you should land on two high-impact and well-prioritized goals (one is also okay) that are going to help you succeed as a company, and deliver impact. 

Well-constructed goals will also help you avoid mission creep, which can be difficult to reverse. Record the goals in your checklist.

Now that you have identified impact goals for your business, ask yourself, do you have the human and financial resources to achieve these goals? Then ask yourself, how could partnering with a like-minded organization help me achieve my goals. 

STEP 2: IDENTIFY YOUR PARTNERS

As you learned in the first step, there are different directions you can take your impact journey and different ways to make a difference in society as a business leader. When you narrowed your focus and prioritized, you landed on one to two goals that would allow you to focus on making real change and also staying true to the growth potential of your business. Focusing allows you to keep time, attention and resources fully aligned with the impact you want to have and where you can make the most difference. 

Thinking about the goals you’ve identified above, and the work you are doing on both impact, and to develop your business, consider who your natural partners are. Perhaps they’re suppliers, vendors, packaging makers, marketing agencies, waste providers, ingredient suppliers, non-profits you support, organizations you donate to, community development programs you’re involved in, schools you provide products to, governments you engage with, and so on. As you can see, there are hundreds of ways you can partner each day, both around the impact work you’re delivering and to support the growth of your business. 

You must assess what strengths and skillsets you already have to address your impact goals and what you might need from a partner. This is your comparative advantage. Comparative advantage is when one party to a partnership can produce a good or service at a relatively lower cost than the other. When you are setting goals for your business, both from a social impact and a profit-making perspective, you need to focus on what you do best and at the lowest possible cost, assuming consistent quality.

Let’s say I own a fashion company that wants to incorporate sustainable sourcing practices. Currently, I source and oversee manufacturing of all of my clothes. The primary material I use in my clothes is cotton.

Since I want to switch to sourcing sustainable cotton, I realize that it is not cost effective for me as a business owner to source cotton directly any longer.

Instead, I find a supplier who is purchasing a larger amount of sustainable cotton and selling it to multiple brands. Since this supplier’s scale gives him a comparative advantage on price, I decide to switch my sourcing to them.

Using the quiz below, think through what strengths you have and what you might need from a partner to achieve your goal(s). 

Activity 2: Take our Comparative Advantage Quiz 

Goal 1: ……………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Goal 2 (If applicable): ………………………………………………………………………………….

Instructions: List all the skillsets and strengths your company brings to addressing your impact goals. Then list the skillsets and strengths you would need from partners:  

Your CompanyPartner(s)
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.

Now that you have identified the skillsets and strengths you need from a partner to achieve your goals, you can begin the partner selection process. When thinking about whom to partner with, it is important to first ensure that both your goals and values align. You want your organizations’ missions to complement each other, not compete. The following activity will help you identify partners that address your skillset gaps. 

Activity 3: Take our Partner Identification Quiz

Goal 1 (From above): …………………………………………………………………………………..

Goal 2 (If applicable): …………………………………………………………………………………..

Instructions: Think about the strengths or skillsets that your company DOES NOT POSSESS, as identified in the previous question. Record a partner type or name of partner that can help fill in the skillset gap.

Partner Skill or StrengthType or Name of Partner(s)
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.

STEP 3: REACHING OUT TO PROSPECTIVE PARTNERS 

Once you have identified what you need from a partner, it’s time to start the search. It can be tricky to connect with partners at first. Start by delving into your network. Leverage industry groups, forums, associations and platforms to find organizations that align to your goal and values. Do some desktop research to see if they possess the strength or skillset you seek. 

The most unlikely organizations may make the best partners. Returning to the example of the fashion company looking to source sustainable cotton, maybe a traditional supplier isn’t the best source — working with a non-profit or foundation that’s focused on empowering farmers could provide more insider knowledge of the best sources of sustainable cotton, allowing a more direct form of  sourcing. 

A foundation may also be able to provide resources to help deepen my impact on my farmer suppliers. 

Use the tracker below to make a list of partners you want to reach out to and what you think they might bring to the partnership. 

Partner Name Rationale (Strength/
skillset they bring)
Point of Contact Name Contact Email Address Date of Initial Outreach Outreach FeedbackNext Steps 

Finding the right partner can take time and may require a bit of back and forth between landing on the right partner. Be patient with the process; the ideal partner(s) will emerge as you explore how you can work together to achieve a shared goal. 

STEP 4: BEGINNING PARTNER ENGAGEMENT

Now that you have partnership ideas in place, and a good sense of why you’d choose a particular partner, or set of partners, you’ll need to make sure your goals are mutually agreeable. For example, if your impact goal is to divert a certain amount of waste you produce from landfills, and a potential partner is the local waste management company, will that company be on board with your goal(s)? 

Can they also derive a positive result by partnering with you? Identifying mutual benefit between partners is critical. It’s also important to get clarity on what each partner needs for its goal delivery before clarifying roles and responsibilities. If you enter a partnership with an impact goal in mind, and your partner isn’t getting enough out of the partnership to stay involved, it will fail. Staying engaged with your partner, and continually making sure your goals are on track, is essential.

Just as each employee has a defined role in your company, each organization should have a defined role in your partnership. For example, say you decide the best partner for your company to advance social impact is one of your suppliers. 

The next questions are:

  • Who will be involved in setting goals and KPIs?
  • Who will manage each aspect of the budget and execution of the project?
  • Who will tell the story? or, how will you both tell the story so your customers hear about the great work? Surely the supplier will want to tell the story too. 

Activity 4: Identify Roles and Responsibilities 

Instructions: Thinking about the partners’ strengths that were identified in the previous steps, list out roles and responsibilities for each partner: 

Partner Name Strength/SkillsetRole Responsibility
(activity to be delivered) 
Example Budgeting Design and Management Completed budget and tracking of budget

Delegate to those who have an interest in the work you’re doing and check in regularly with your partners to ensure the roles and responsibilities that you’ve taken on aren’t too intensive for either of you. If mission creep creeps in, review the roles and responsibilities list above to get back on track. 

STEP 5: CREATING PARTNERSHIP OVERSIGHT

Now that you have a good sense of the roles and responsibilities division between you and your partner(s), it’s time to consider how you’ll determine whether the partnership is actually delivering on the impact you want to see, and the business growth you are depending upon.

Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems help non-profits keep track of delivery on investments, ensure social enterprises are making a difference in the places where they are investing business income, and allow companies to track returns on their financial investments.

M&E approaches are also used by government funders of social impact programs to show taxpayers how their valuable money is being spent to create true impact – at least we hope!

What is M&E? And why does it matter to a partnership?

Monitoring is the way that you and your partner(s) will continuously evaluate your partnership’s progress. It will help you maintain oversight on budget, roles and responsibilities, timeline, how staff is being engaged, specific project tasks, and achievement of the overall goal. 

Evaluation is very closely related to monitoring. Evaluation keeps you focused on the relevance and outcomes of your work together — examining metrics around the impact you’re having, the profit you are bringing in, the way customers or other stakeholders are responding to your work. It’s also keeping track of the effectiveness of your program. 

Be prepared to schedule regular check-ins with your partner(s) as often as often as possible, but at a minimum, every one, three or six months depending on the nature of your mutual goal(s). Discuss the status of your work together, and review budgets, timelines, roles and effectiveness. Evaluate whether your work together is achieving what you hoped and planned to achieve.

When designing your M&E systems, start with your goal and work backwards to set objectives that will act as stops along the way to achieving your goal. You are measuring the progress you need to get there step-by-step. 

Use our simple Monitoring & Evaluation Framework to get started.

Simple Monitoring & Evaluation Framework

GoalInsert partnership goal
Objective1Description Baseline (Starting Value)Target Value Timeline (expected completion)Budget on track (y/n)Project on track (y/n)
Short-term Output
Long-term output
Objective2Description Baseline (Starting Value)Target Value Timeline (expected completion)Budget on track (y/n)Project on track (y/n)
Short-term Output
Long-term output
Objective3Description Baseline (Starting Value)Target Value Timeline (expected completion)Budget on track (y/n)Project on track (y/n)
Short-term Output
Long-term output

STEP 6: EVOLVING YOUR PARTNERSHIP 

Your regular check-ins with your partner(s) are a chance to understand what’s working well, and which elements need to be improved. Use your check-ins to determine whether the partnership is indeed helping you reach your own goals. The check-ins should help you determine when to grow the partnership to perhaps bring in more of your money, more investors, other partners, employees or other stakeholders. 

Your M&E framework will help you and your partner(s) assess if something in the partnership needs to evolve or pivot into something else. Sometimes an intervention you think might work doesn’t. That’s okay! The short-term objectives are there to help you catch what is not working early. 

If one partnership is not working, there are always other opportunities to find new ones. It’s perfectly normal to work with new partners all the time. Focus on your goals and stay true to them. 

Use the check list below to help you think through what direction to take your partnership next:

When To Scale When To Go 
You have the opportunity to replicate The path to your impact goal is stalled
Your partnership needs additional skillsets Employees are not bought into the partnership
More impact achievable without additional budgetYour partner isn’t engaging 
Employees are asking for more engagement Mutual goals are no longer aligned
You’re making great progress on your goals and can achieve more together Budgets, timelines & deliverables are not being met

CASE STUDY: HOW ACUMEN VIEWS PARTNERSHIPS AS KEY TO IMPROVING FARMER LIVELIHOODS

The Challenge

Given their role as leaders in the social enterprise and impact investing space, Acumen wanted to explore how corporations, social enterprises, and other critical intermediaries and allies can forge partnerships that make the sourcing of food and agriculture sustainable, inclusive, and a force for good. Acumen asked Connective Impact to work with them to better understand the role that social enterprises played in helping cocoa companies, in particular, improve farmer livelihoods through investments in their supply chains.

The Goal

Identify the appropriate stakeholders and potential partners to engage with Acumen on a research project and dialogue around the role and opportunity for social enterprise in cocoa growing communities.

The Approach

Connective Impact identified stakeholders for Acumen to engage, as well as explored the current state of play among cocoa companies working with social enterprises in cocoa growing communities. This included:

  • Working with Acumen to prioritize their program priorities;
  • Identifying potential stakeholders and partners to engage;
  • Performing outreach on Acumen’s behalf and facilitating conversations with private sector, NGO and government actors.
  • Helping advance research on the topic through Acumen’s report: COCOA INTERRUPTED: THE ROLE OF SOCIAL ENTERPRISE IN COCOA SUSTAINABILITY
  • Preparing for a side event at the Skoll World Forum.

The Result

In addition to the report, which included all stakeholder feedback, Acumen has been able to take forward a plan to engage the cocoa sector more broadly in working with social enterprises in cocoa-growing communities to advance social and environmental impact. 

What Else Can You Do? 

If you found this guide helpful, sign up for Connective Impact’s full E-Learning course that delves further into creating impactful (and profitable) partnerships: https://www.partnering4impact.com/Ready

Looking for more resources on how to partner? Connective Impact offers free partner evaluation tools and guides for partnering. Find them here.

Reach out to Connective Impact’s partnership advisors to review your priority setting, goal development and partnership opportunities.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Step 1: Look inward. Understand what your priorities and impact goals are first. Then assess if you have the needed resources and skills internally to achieve your goals. 

Step 2: Identify partners. Find partners who complement your organization’s mission, share your values, and can fill in y/our gaps. 

Step 3: Engage to ensure mutual benefit. Identify and work through goals, roles and responsibilities. Focus on your strengths. 

Step 4: Track progress Create a simple M&E accountability tool to track the progress of your partnership in achieving your impact goal(s). 

Step 5: Evolve. Use your M&E framework to assess what is and isn’t working. Pivot your approach if needed and be clear-eyed if the partnership is no longer working. 

Now that you have the tools to guide you through your partnership journey, it is time to start partnering. The more we engage like-minded organizations, the deeper our impact can be.