Steve Jobs famously said it was ‘more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy”. He meant that big bureaucracies are slower to change than start-ups. In Tendayi Viki’s book ‘Pirates in the Navy’ he thinks that it’s perfectly possible for innovators to thrive in a bigger environment and get all of the benefits of scale and support.
Corporate partnership executives are just like pirates in the navy. The main NFP organisation is set up to run the core business, whether it’s medical research, providing vital services or driving advocacy. What you’re doing with corporate partnerships is driving innovation. You’re the pirates in a bigger battleship that is determinedly steaming ahead but a bit slow to change course.
What’s it like being a pirate and how can you thrive?
Non-profits are constrained by regulations, legal obligations, ethical standards and donor expectations. Corporate partnerships can sometimes be viewed as disruptive and a risk to core operations. There can be hesitancy from your colleagues who think it’s easier to just apply for more government grants because that’s what they’ve always done. Of course, there’s risk with corporate partnerships but there’s also massive opportunity that comes with innovation and doing things differently. If there’s anything that COVID has taught us, it’s to be adaptive in turbulent times.
To be an innovator with corporate partnerships you have to navigate the torpedoes of your internal processes. It can be frustrating and demoralising when you don’t have the decision rights or power to do this unilaterally. Every successful pirate has a great patron behind them. In your case, it will make life much easier if you can win the backing of your CEO and leadership to support innovation and clear the way through the rocks and reefs.
Being a pirate is the best fun. You get to use all of your skills in creativity, negotiation, strategy, business development and relationship management. It also helps quieten the naysayers when you start bringing home some loot. When Sir Francis Drake ventured on the high seas the first Queen Elizabeth was a bit wary of his buccaneering until he started to arrive with Spanish gold. Suddenly piracy started to look like a more attractive option.
Start small and build some early wins. The first opportunities may not be large, listed corporates, but SMEs that are local and aligned to your cause. You’ll be showing the doubters that partnerships are good for the bottom line and build their confidence in this new venture.
Be sure to include your allies and the early adopters in the partnership process. This might involve taking them to business meetings, having them attend corporate events or work with you on a marketing plan for a potential campaign. Participation will help your colleagues understand the benefits of partnerships and allay their fears that piracy isn’t going to destroy the whole fleet.
Over time you’ll build a coalition of support within your organisation that may include HR, legal, marketing, service delivery and volunteers. It will be the start of a cultural shift where partnerships are at the heart of your non-profit, not a side hustle. Greater inclusion will raise their skills and understanding and lift the tide for all boats. More revenue, more support, more expertise, more awareness and all of the assets that come with corporate partnerships will start to transform your organisation.
The most important thing to sustain partnerships is to embed them within a repeatable process that can be used into the future. Early wins may be a bit opportunistic, but a partnership system based on a strong understanding of your value proposition, your offering and solutions for corporate needs will give you a platform to replicate success for years to come.
Being in a strong navy can be a comfortable place, but big ships don’t move fast enough for our turbulent times. Thinking like a pirate and being the disrupter will bring your non-profit a wealth of new opportunities. As Paulo Coelho said, “a ship in harbour is safe, but that’s not what ships are made for”. Time to hoist the pirate flag and go plundering.