There’s a right way and many wrong ways to start a fire. I learned this the hard way when staying at an English country cottage in winter. The quaint old Georgian building had no central heating, and we weren’t going to get hot water unless I could get a fire going. Nothing like the pressure of tired kids and an Aussie husband whose brain malfunctions below a balmy 15C.
Kindling the spark of innovation to drive partnership growth requires the same patience and gradual approach as a log fire. You need to start small, include different ingredients and nurture the flame constantly. You can’t put a single big log in the middle, throw in a match and hope. (Nor should you chuck in some lighter fuel, but that’s another story.)
Commitment to innovation decreased in 2020 as businesses focused on short term operational issues. But corporate CEOs desperately need help to position themselves for a post COVID future. McKinsey research shows that:
- 86% of business executives are concerned that COVID will have a lasting impact on customer needs and wants in the next 5 years BUT
- only 21% of them feel they have the expertise and resources to be successful
Building innovation into partnerships is in the best interest of all partners. The most effective way is getting diverse and inclusive participation in the process. Diversity and inclusion foster creativity. How can you stimulate innovation in your partnerships?
Include an important partner
Sometimes relationships can get a little stale. The partners know each other well and have been comfortable for a while, but things haven’t changed much. If your non-profit organisation wants to grow, then you’ll need to put a spark back into the partnership. Partnership managers often feel pressure to come up with the ideas by themselves, as part of good account management. A more effective approach is to include the partner in some structured, facilitated discussion about the partnership.
Before the COVID crisis we facilitated a discussion between a mental health charity and one of its largest partners, a health insurer. Importantly, we included staff from a range of different departments in each organisation. It enabled us to tap into their specific expertise and build relationships at multiple points in the organisation, not just between the two partnership managers. The core of the discussion was about how the partnership could significantly shift mental health in Australia. Together we mapped the different activities and identified a missing piece where mental health was underserved in the community. It helped the charity to shift the partnership from tied program funding to a multi-year, 7 figure commitment to mental health support. Invite your partner to collaborate and create solutions together and you unlock much greater value for your charity.
Introduce your partners to each other
You probably have a diverse portfolio of corporate partners. Do you work with them individually, on a bilateral basis or have you ever got them all together in one room? Successful charities have fostered connections between their partners and created more value for them through the new relationships made. It’s also a great way to tap into different perspectives and ideas to drive innovative thinking on a big thorny problem for your non-profit. I once brought together partners and donors to discuss the issue of human trafficking and exploitation in the Asia-Pacific. The enthusiasm of the partners to find solutions was electric. There were some solid ideas and some crazy left field ones. The MD of a large logistics company and a bank CEO concocted the idea to buy a great big ship and move people down the Mekong river themselves. The idea of an ethically sourced facilitation for human traffic across borders wasn’t going to fly, despite the creativity. At the end of the session, however, we’d fleshed out a new regional approach to people exploitation across the Golden Triangle to replace the existing smaller, in-country responses. So, when we were ready to seek partners for this new approach, we already had an eager bunch of supporters and advocates. Inclusion opened the door for new ideas but also unlocked a broader coalition of potential support.
Include your colleagues
We worked with an Australian welfare aid charity who had only a couple of corporate partnerships, despite their size. Or that’s what they told us. Our analysis uncovered over 400 separate business relationships across the organisation. In addition, their largest, most valuable corporate partner had 16 different people talking to them, from a frontline service delivery coordinator to the CEO. We recommended a coalition approach, building a multi-stakeholder steering group to manage their best corporate partner in a coordinated way. In addition, we facilitated a cross-team workshop to explore the opportunities with all the corporate leads that were going untended across the organisation. We were thrilled that the team managed to use this approach to secure their first $1mln commitment from their main corporate partner.
You can drive innovation in partnerships by simply taking a more inclusive approach. Inspiration and ideas can be found in seemingly unrelated places. Or it could be lying dormant, just waiting for you to bring it to life. Kindle the spark by tapping into the diversity of thinking inside your organisation and your partners. And leave the lighter fuel well alone.