Three (3) things to consider before starting your next cross-sector partnership

This blog was first published for in May 2021 – this is a recast and updated version.


The age of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for concerted efforts from across the global development stakeholder-ship if we will follow through with a more sustainable future for all. SDG 17 calls for partnerships of all forms, they just need to be supportive of the sustainability agenda.

One of the commonly practiced areas of partnerships is the collaboration between and among Non-government Organizations (commonly non-profit) and Private companies (mostly for-profit). These find attractive values on both sides – NGOs are central in bringing the most marginalized of our communities into the development loop and ensuring that the rights of the weakest are observed.

On the other hand, companies are more than willing to invest parts of their value to count themselves as supportive of their local as well as global communities. This mode of operation is commonly characterized by corporate donations from companies to NGOs, and less often a “joint/common effort” to deliver an agreed objective.

In fact, this model of partnering has had its bouts of criticism from the NGOs, Companies, as well as the current wave of sustainability proponents. One of the main threads of this criticism is the cynicism in “companies buying themselves into appearing to do good, and NGOs selling their souls for cheap resources”.

On a brighter note, there exists thousands of robust cross-sector partnerships, and more of these will be needed to reach our ambitions of a more sustainable globe set out in the SDGs, because it is clear none of the sectors can do it alone. But what are the play rules for a robust NGO-Company-Public partnership? Where do you start? What does it take? How do you do this?

Here are our lessons

  1. Make partnering/partnerships a part of your main strategy and not a standalone.

Take a clear decision on whether you want partnerships to be part of your business model. And here we are not talking about clients, collaborators, customers, suppliers, occasional users, or contributors. Yes, these can be partners, but if any of them can easily be replaced, then they do not count as the partnership we are talking about here.

By partnerships we are talking about those entities you decide to “jointly deliver components of your mission because you cannot do it alone – and where the outcomes are equally important for both”. Partnerships can for example:

  • Come with advantages of scale – both size and space/geography.
  • Have the potential to extend your coverage into sectors you are not familiar with, but where you can create strong impacts like companies being part of development work, and NGOs developing business acumen for income generation.
  • Bring new or unfamiliar skills and perspectives to your entity, enriching it more, and many other advantages.

Once you have settled with having partnerships as a part of your business model, then work this into your strategy, so that there are clear guidelines on processes, behaviors, areas of engagement, contracts, allocation of resources, being part of the organization’s public story/profile, etc.

This helps that everyone in your organization or company becomes aware of the ambition of partnerships and knows where to start in supporting this agenda.

We have been part of partnerships and talked with many that have the experience of partnerships that are only known to one or two staff members in a company or organization, and when you ask all others, they will wonder whether you called the wrong number. But if this is made as part of your organizational strategy, it automatically sets into process ways of making your partners and partnership activities a part of your entire organization’s life.

And believe me, many employees enjoy being part of a bigger agenda and will proudly talk about and support the success of such partnerships.

  1. Start with getting to know each other, well.

This probably sounds obvious, but you will be surprised how often we meet NGOs or Companies that start with the statement “We did not know they worked that way, we would not have gone into that partnership”!

The idea of partnership taken lightly as two entities meeting at a café and deciding to do something together sounds charming, and it is. This is how some of the most viral ideas have started and turned into lucrative enterprises.

But digging under the hood of these ideas we also find a rigorous process of the different partners holding countless sessions of clarity on, who they are, how they work, why they do what they do, and what they want to reach.

This talks into both the missions of the partnerships, the processes of the partners, ambitions as well as routines. Seen broadly, your partnership needs to be well acquainted with the organizational culture of everyone involved so they know what they are subscribing to, which minimizes surprises.

Things like – who and how decisions are made, what tone and language each partner works best with, how structured or unstructured, frequency of communication and how this is done, etc. mean a whole lot for the health of any partnership. And, of course, there will come things unknown with time, however, with the foundation that you know who your partners are and what they care most about, you will be able to navigate any shocks with fair clarity.

  1. Make a baseline of your partnership – including expectations, main deliverables, review timelines, management of conflicts, exit strategies, etc.

Having a strategy for partnerships, and knowing your potential partner well are only an entry into a healthy framework for your next partnership. Probably the most critical foundation in starting your partnership is creating a joint strategy for your partnership when you decide to start one.

This is what we call “a partnership baseline or baseline”. This is not new, everyone whether in the business or Development sector knows that for any organization or company to succeed, one needs a clear strategy and ways to measure your progress, and so does your partnership.

So, before you rush into starting partnership operations you will need to set aside time and needed resources to bring representatives of the different partnering entities together to have an honest reflection on what their missions and visions for the partnership are.

You also need to clarify the expectations and what other partners should expect from them, how the partnerships shall be structured – leadership and decision processes, communication aspects, what needs to be delivered, by who and when, how to monitor the health of the partnership – including timelines for these and actions to be taken, how conflicts shall be managed whenever they arise, and the life expectancy of the partnership as well as the exit strategy.

While it is common to find many partnerships that have succeeded without a rigorous baseline/partnership strategy as we suggest above, experience and statistics show that the main cause of the collapse of partnerships is unsynchronized expectations and structures.


The list of advice on partnerships, especially unconventional ones, and cross-sectoral ones is endless, and it can be daunting to find concrete suggestions for the first steps on this journey. And yet, it is extremely critical to lay a strong foundation for such partnerships.

We have in this article tried to set out three critical things you need to consider before you get into your first partnership. We know these have helped many, and we hope they also inspire you. These include:

  1. Make partnering/partnerships a part of your main strategy not a standalone.
  2. Start with getting to know each other, well.
  3. Make a baseline of your partnership – including expectations, main deliverables, review timelines, management of conflicts, exit strategies, etc.

I hope this contributes to your partnership journey.

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