Posted By : Darren Ward
31st January 2019
One Partner, Many Faces
One Partner, Many Faces-image

A lot of the focus in the social impact sector is on partnerships across organisations and sectors.  There is no doubt this will be a significant part of the future of maximising social impact, but what happens when the actors in a partnership are a partnership themselves?   How can this affect the impact?

Many international organisations are a collection of legally independent organisations who come together under the umbrella of a brand and international body to deliver work in a specific area.  The sector is rich with stories of success of these partnerships, but sadly it seems that for every positive story there is a story of frustration, disquiet or sometimes even failure.

In a previous blog I talked about the challenges of bringing multi-stakeholder partnerships together presented and how these challenges could be mitigated by clarity on where partners had common ground, careful planning, and mutual accountability (see

In this blog we will explore why the same process is crucial to the ongoing success of partnerships of independent organisations under one brand.

In a world where cross sector partnerships and collaborations across larger geographies are becoming more prevalent, it is increasingly common for partnerships to span across a number of partners within what is considered one international partner organisation.

For example, a global logistics firm may partner with a global iNGO in delivering logistical support in times of humanitarian crisis.  When disaster hits the local arms of both the logistics company and the iNGO will work together to deliver support.  Provisioning supplies may involve other parts of these organisations working together.  If either one of the organisations has a dysfunctional culture or internal tensions the chances of the joint venture failing increase significantly.  After all, what may be frustrations for staff involved in dealing with the internal politics of a partner organisation may cause urgently needed aid to not arrive.

Sadly it seems that it is more often the iNGO that suffers from issues of internal politics and dysfunction across the organisation.  Multi-national businesses tend to be clearer on systems, processes and most importantly culture.  The successful ones have worked out how to implement an organisational culture that provides the freedom to localise within a framework for collective consistency where it matters.

So what can global organisations do to increase their ability to be a consistent and stable partner across their entire organisation, without losing the benefits of diversity, localisation and flexibility that a looser structure may offer.  

  1. Be clear on the problem you exist to solve together.

Having a consistent understanding of what the issue is you are working together to solve, and why working together maximises your impact sets the basis for a strong internal cohesion.  The common purpose is the strongest glue to hold even the most diverse organisations together. 

  1. Create a common culture throughout the organisation.

Nothing is more frustrating to work within, or in partnership with, than an organisation that is inconsistent in how it behaves from place to place.   While we may understand the internal differences and politics that cause one office to behave differently to another, the rest of the world see one organisation and expect it to be recognisable by its behaviour more than the sign above the door. 

While it should be expected in any global organisation that the local culture will impact on how an office operates in different locations, this cannot be an excuse for not developing and reinforcing an organisational culture.  This organisational culture will provide the framework for diversity to thrive in and will be what defines the organisation and how others engage best with it. This has huge benefits for staff and partners. 

  1. Invest in establishing a strong partnership structure 

Defining and agreeing the scope, responsibilities, expectations and accountabilities of individual partners within the organisation up front provides the operating framework for consistency and success.  While differences will happen and disagreement is part of any relationship at times, having a predefined framework for managing these will ease the way.  If the partnership structure is built on a foundation of agreed organisational values and culture the integrity and mutual respect of all partners can be maintained by framing discussions in this context instead of arguing process.  

  1. Be willing to hold each other to account, and be held to account. 

A good partnership is built on trust, and trust is best built on the basis of equality and accountability. When all partners are willing to be held to account, and to hold others to account, the power imbalances in a partnership reduce significantly. The focus is on mutual accountability to the shared objectives and the impact sought rather than on who might be the bigger or more influential organisation.  

  1. Keep the main thing the main thing

It is a very rare occurrence that the social impact outcome an organisation seeks to have is maximised by internal politics and power plays between member organisations.  If the primary focus is always on the impact and any internal issues are dealt with based on shared purpose, common culture and mutual accountability decisions are far more likely to be made that benefit maximised social impact.  Ego should have no pace in discussions on social impact.

A recent article1 outlined how the growing demand for ethical food is being hindered by splits and fractures within the fair trade certification community.  It appears that rather than focus on leveraging the increased demand for ethical goods to benefit poor farmers and producers the focus is on the differences and processes of certification.

While this is clearly frustrating for consumers who lack clarity on what ethical standards really are, and for the companies that supply finished goods the biggest effect is on the farmers who are not seeing the benefits ethical certification should offer.  The social impact is far from being maximised for any of the organisations who have set up to promote ethical trade.

If we can get our diverse, global organisations working well we can be best positioned to make the most of any partnerships we enter into and maximising our social impact.

1Fair trade food schemes battle to promote better standards, D. Crouch, Financial Times Jan. 08, 2019

Darren Ward

Darren Ward is the co-founder and managing partner of Direct Impact Group Ltd. He brings his experience in senior leadership roles in both the business and iNGO sector to offer a broad understanding of how both sectors can deliver maximum social impact. His core competencies are strategic planning, transformational change, partnerships and collaboration and the role of new finance models for impact.