Partnerships (and alliances) exist in every facet of our lives – from our relationships with our nearest and dearest, to coalitions between businesses and nonprofits, governments and nonprofits, like-minded public interest groups, business agreements and so on. They range from the local community action group, which brings together an alliance of environmentalists and anti-developers, to business sponsorships of sports and the arts, and corporations signing up to the .
Partnerships provide the opportunity to combine resources, expand communication and membership reach, and boost credibility and reputation. They may be oriented towards business, the labour market, sustainable development, local issues, social problems – just about anything you can think of where people can benefit from coming together. Some concentrate on narrow local targets while others co-ordinate broad policy areas in large regions where millions of people live (OECD, 2006). The number of parties involved can therefore vary enormously: generally, the more partners, the more interests will be represented. In all cases, effective, fair and committed communication is a key factor in making partnerships work.
This podcast by Vivian Chen describes how slash and burn practices for clearing the land in some Southeast Asian countries has resulted in the loss of important peatland and other natural habitat. She describes how a partnership between the Peatland Restoration Agency, The University of Queensland and local villages have worked to coordinate and facilitate peatland restoration programs across Indonesian provinces. This program has helped progress sustainable development and build economically and environmental sustainable livelihoods for the people of Indonesia, although like many partnerships has faced difficulty in achieving its ambitious targets. After listening to the podcast you can learn more about the program and its goals for the future in The Conservation article ‘Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency gets an extension despite failing to hit its target: what are the hurdles and next strategies‘ (2020), by Rini Astuti, David Taylor and Michelle Ann Miller.
Many other countries are also using this model to foster and embed sustainable environmental outcomes with economic and community development. The following image by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) shows a team of people in Singapore supported by the partnership to restore peatlands and thereby help reduce fire and habitat destruction.
Making partnerships work
For partnerships to be successful, there are many factors that should come into play. From the start, partners need to hold shared values and common goals – otherwise they will not be a good fit. This has been described as a combination of mutuality and organisational identity.
- Mutuality encompasses the spirit of shared partnership principles;
- Organisational identity centers on the rationale for selecting particular partners and considers how the partnership value adds (Brinkerhoff, 2002).
For example, the social media app TikTok has partnered with many large organisations during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the World Health Organisation, the Red Cross, UNICEF, The World Economic Forum, the scientific community’s ‘Team Halo’, and others (TikTok, 2021). TikTok says “We’re at our strongest when we work together, which is why we’ve partnered with a number of local and global organizations who are using TikTok to share trusted information with the community”. Among the benefits to these organisations is the access to the target audience of TikTok; and for TikTok comes the credibility of partnering with NGO giants and keeping a high profile during the pandemic in combating misinformation.
TikTok promotes their efforts to combat COVID-19 misinformation on their website https://www.tiktok.com/safety/en-us/covid-19/. On this site they list a number of projects they have implemented, including the ‘TikTok Health Heroes Relief Fund’, ‘TikTok Community Relief Fund’, ‘TikTok Creative Learning Fund’ and ‘Helping SMBs restart and rebuild’. As well as these programs and the partnerships designed to combat misinformation, they also launched two hashtags: ‘#HappyAtHome and #DistanceDance. Take a look at the following video by The Times of India where they compile short clips of dancing around the globe to keep spirits high during COVID-19 lockdowns. In this way they connect their COVID-19 related partnerships with positive and entertaining content, while increasing their reach and global audience.
Partnerships can be between two parties or many. An OECD report into partnerships explains how a multi-leveled, regional-based partnership may be designed to bring together many actors within a geographical location to contribute to a change initiative.
‘Firstly, to bring together all relevant actors is not an easy task as this implies having around one table not only different government institutions (usually of different levels) – many of which are traditionally competing with or ignoring each other – but also social partners, entrepreneurs, NGOs, the education and scientific sector, representatives of the civil society and many more. The interests of such partners, and therefore their approach to certain problems will usually be rather different’. (OECD, 2006)
This scenario illustrates the complex nature of making partnerships work. Partners will always have different priorities. Let’s now apply this to a particular context: the implementation of a regional grid of electric car charging stations. There will be factors such as costings, the logistical placement of public charging stations, equitable access to members of the public including disabled drivers, town planning requirements, outsourcing to businesses, and so on. Each will represent different interests and priorities. If you imagine this group sitting around a table – perhaps 10 or 12 people – it is clear that the process of communication in dealing with this public policy initiative will be key. Think about some of the themes so far in this book: dialogue, listening, debate from the different actors or publics will all play a part in this discourse arena.
The OECD report identifies communication as one of the most important elements in a partnership, highlighting how critical it is that all voices in the partnership are heard. “What is clear is that the creation of an effective and long-lasting partnership requires a lot of thought, discussion, communication, understanding and mutual co-operation of partners” (2006, p. 29). Its report provides a comprehensive list of 17 features that make a successful partnership, many reflecting a public interest communication focus, including representation, inclusion, openness to new ideas, providing a forum for alternative voices, and more.
- The partnership enjoys political and social acceptance.
- The partners show determination and accept the practicalities of their political responsibilities.
- There is a strong sense of ownership.
- Agreements are based on identifiable responsibilities, joint rights and obligations, and are signed by all relevant partners.
- The partnership takes an inclusive approach (relevant actors are involved in planning and implementation).
- Strong commitment from each of the partners is reflected in the fact that all partner organisations are equally present and, where possible, represented by experienced persons who have influence within their organisation.
- Responsibilities and the nature of co-operation are clarified.
- The coordinators of the partnership are nominated by the partners.
- Rules of conduct (e.g. good communication between actors, regular attendance of meetings, continuity of personnel, regular transfer of information among the partners) are adhered to by the partners.
- Resources, responsibilities and tasks may differ, but the added value of the partnership to each partner is recognised.
- Resources, knowledge, know-how and ideas are shared within the partnership.
- Equal opportunities within the partnership are secured (partnerships will not necessarily succeed if one or a small number of the partners are perceived as dominant).
- Adequate financial and human resources are available for implementation.
- The partnership should be able to lever funding from a range of sources.
- There is a firm foundation of good practice in financial controls, accounting procedures, human resource management, etc.
- Resources and energy are devoted to monitoring and evaluation, on the basis of realistic but demanding performance indicators and targets which are clearly defined.
- A ‘learning culture’ is fostered, i.e. one where all partners are able to learn from one another by allowing new ideas to come forward in an open exchange of experiences.
Partnerships can be a way for members of the corporate sector to consolidate their and goals by partnering with nonprofits or community groups, just as outlined in the TikTok example, above. A study by US PR scholars McKeever and Remund (2019) into the corporate social responsibility aspects of partnering between corporates and nonprofits found that partnerships could be reframed as ‘public interest partnerships’ because of their focus on community over organisational interests. The study, Partnerships in the Public Interest found the three best practices for long term corporate-nonprofit relationships were:
- Working toward clarity at the outset and throughout the partnership.
- Striving for consistency in shared goals and storytelling about the partnership and its impact.
- Being comprehensive with the relationship by making an impact within a community.
They found it was important to prioritise community, have shared values, and keep reputations in mind, while not losing sight of public perception. The last of these points – public perception – is often highlighted when a partnership goes wrong. We hear about this when sponsorship partnerships are derailed due to one of the parties (usually the sponsee) acting in a way that is inconsistent with the values of the other partner (usually the sponsor). Among those that have hit the headlines are:
- Cricket Australia’s test naming rights sponsor, Investment firm Magellan, cancelled its partnership when the team was exposed for ball-tampering. Magellan said the behaviour had been “inconsistent with our values”, ending its three-year deal.
- Oscar Pistorius’ partnerships with sponsors – reportedly worth US$4million – were cancelled when the South African Paralympian was charged with murder (and later found guilty of culpable homicide).
These examples and many others illustrate how communication, relationships, public perception and shared values are all interlinked, and how partnerships need ongoing attention, open and active channels of communication, and mutuality, to work. That said, this is not a magical recipe – if the shared principles of a partnership are lost, then it may be time for a partnership to be dismantled and for the process of partnering to being again.
The following video shows the outcomes of a partnership between different organisations in Western Australia. The Jirndawurrunha Park Council, composed of 12 members from the Yindibarndi and Nglauma, manage Millstream Chichester National Park in the Pilbara region alongside the WA Parks and Wildlife Services. This National Park is centered around ‘Deep Reach’ pool on the Fortescue River, a site revered and respected by Yindijbardndi and other nearby Aboriginal clans. The streams running through the Park regularly clog with invasive weeds which negatively impact on the unique wetlands and species which depend on it. This partnership was organised to enable volunteers to clear weeds and supported by local media and businesses.
Imagine you are responsible for arranging this partnership and delivering on its promises to help with the management of the park. Watch the video and then reflect on the questions below.
- What are the different interests of each of the main organisations involved? (Jirndawurrunha Park Council, WA Parks and Wildlife Services and Karratha Enviro Group)
- What do you think are the benefits of this partnership to each of those main organisations?
- What events or factors could jeopardise the partnership?
- What steps could the organisations take to ensure the partnership remains effective and long-lasting? (note: some responses to these questions can be found at the end of the chapter)
Like public interest, partnerships are about balance. While they present great opportunities for advancing interests of smaller nonprofit, charity or interest groups, there are risks that the more powerful partner (often a corporate partner) may be motivated by strategic benefits rather than doing good in the community. Some say corporate-nonprofit partnerships risk leaning away from “social” to “strategic”, signalling “the appropriation of the ‘social partnership’ in order to serve the purposes of business” (Seitanidi & Ryan 2007, p. 257). Therefore, for public interest communication to be served and maintained, there must be a mutually beneficial relationship in the partnership. The longevity of a partnership can often provide a pretty good litmus test for determining if partnerships have worked in the public interest.
While this chapter has focused on corporate-nonprofit partnerships, we should keep in mind that there are many combinations that make up partnerships. Government-community partnerships are common, often resulting in which we examine in the next chapter. It’s been found that communities can gain significant benefits where, for example, government-community partnerships are strong, especially where communities are enabled via social inclusion partnerships in which communication plays a key role (Johnston, 2016).
A voluntary initiative based on CEO commitments to implement universal sustainability principles and to take steps to support UN goals. See more at https://www.unglobalcompact.org/about
Where a corporate entity, such as corporation, business, or business-like organisation, has social, cultural and environmental responsibilities to the community.
The idea that businesses should act in a way that benefits society or has the best interests of their environment and society as a whole.
Building the ability of communities to develop, implement and sustain their own solutions to problems, in a way that allows them to shape and exercise control in a positive manner.