Top tips for better cross-sector partnerships

Published: 27 October 2019

A group of people at a bowling alley
Great chemistry doesn’t always equal impact, says Laura Dale Harris. 

Struggling to progress social goals on your own? A cross-sector partnership could be the answer. After all, each partner can bring different and complementary assets to the table. What’s not to like?

Well, the demands of partnership relationships are easy to underestimate – even when everyone has the very best intentions. There’s a temptation to rely on good faith and personal chemistry. But to grow and maximise a partnership’s potential, it must be nurtured. You have to work on the partnership itself – and that includes its funding, continuing goals and the objectives and functions of its different members.

I recently had the privilege of working with the board and team of the cross-sector partnership, Drive, to develop a strategy for scaling its impact. Reflecting on my experiences here – and with other partnerships – here are my four top tips for growing an effective cross-sector partnership:

1. Dedicate time and capacity

While new partnerships will often have initial funding or committed support, planning for the future of the partnership itself is often a low priority. But practical questions like this are often key if the partnership is to reach its potential.

For instance, partners will need to decide how a partnership initially supported with grant funds will continue once the funding ends. This may involve difficult choices – and that’s why it’s crucial to dedicate staff to develop these plans. Investing resources also provides an additional incentive for partners to think proactively about the future of the partnership. From my experiences with Drive, it doesn’t have to involve the same people who initiated the cross-sector collaboration. 

2. Get your timing right

Developing growth strategies for a cross-sector partnership takes time. So it’s worth considering the best timing. For Drive, 2018 felt like the right time to begin this process for lots of reasons:

First, the team were two years into the pilot and needed to think through what happened next. Secondly, a new grant from the Home Office gave us an opportunity to test the replication process. Thirdly, new localities were reaching out to bring Drive to their patch. We also identified more opportunities to influence wider systemic change, including the upcoming DVA bill – which meant it was important to have a clear unified vision of the change we are seeking. Finally, the team was expanding, so it was even more important for everything to come together to maximise impact of various pieces of work.

3. (Re-)define shared goals and your common vision

How well aligned are your partners? To growing the impact of a cross-sector partnership, you need an agreed list of the problems to solve, shared goals and a common mission.

Most partnerships have this on day one, but few go back to revisit them – either due to lack of capacity or because they assume things haven’t changed. But you might be surprised.

For Drive, this exercise led all partners to agree an ambitious vision – far beyond the initial scope of the partnership. As well as developing shared goals and a common vision, those open discussions also really helped build trust and respect between partners.

4. (Really) understand each organisation’s interests and capabilities

It’s not enough for individuals simply to trust one another – shared organisational interests are crucial. That’s why it’s important to spend time with partners to understand their strategy independently of your partnership. Knowing where they are (and where they want to go) is key to growing your cross-sector partnership.

For Drive, these activities have included an organisational capabilities self-assessment workshop (with the partners’ CEOs and members of the team), and two days with one organisation to support their theory of change and strategy. I’ve found that some of these slightly outside scope’ discussions can be facilitated by a formal agreement, such as terms of reference. 

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