Three Steps to Developing a Strategic Partnership

Natalie Tucker works with small businesses to help maximise their social impact. Prior to starting her own consultancy, Natalie spent over ten years working across the charity, social enterprise and corporate worlds. Here she shares her top tips for building strategic partnerships:

“For a time-strapped manager in a small business, the idea of building a strategic partnership can be overwhelming – but strategic partnerships needn’t feel big or complex.

Below are three steps that I have found helpful for focusing mine and my clients’ minds on why build a partnership, and how to set both sides up for success (which I hope you’ll find useful too!).

1. Set business objectives

Start by setting out what you want to achieve from a partnership. When it comes to working with charities, this may begin with a desire to make a positive difference in your community or to engage your employees, but it’s also well worth considering how a responsible business-led partnership can serve your core business goals.

A good example of this is Virgin Media, for whom responsible business activity represents an opportunity to engage with customers in a different way, whilst achieving social impact.

As well as aiming to enable one million disabled people into work by 2020, Virgin Media’s partnership with disability charity Scope sees the charity helping the business to better support disabled colleagues, and make their services more accessible for customers. This sets Virgin Media apart from the competition when it comes to customers with disabilities, or those with an affinity to the cause.

2. Do your research

Finding the right partner is no easy feat! The best ones aren’t always the easiest to find, and making time to explore this fully is likely to be a challenge – but putting the time and effort in at this stage is absolutely vital.

Seeking recommendations from trusted networks or working with a specialist broker can be particularly helpful for making the right connections.

It’s essential to meet prospective partners in person to get to know how they work and what they’re looking for in a partnership. In my experience, it’s far more valuable to do this first in an informal setting, rather than through a formal selection process, as this lends itself better to building more authentic relationships.

3. Co-create the partnership

A partnership is only successful when both parties are able to achieve their respective goals.

When it comes to business-charity partnerships, too often the business is seen as the donor, and the charity as the recipient, placing the charity in a subordinate position.

In an interesting role-reversal, when McCain Foods was struggling to sustain its business in Colombia, it was a charity they turned to for help.

McCain’s CEO recognised that his business’ survival depended upon change. Working closely with Yunus Social Business, the pair devised a business model that would provide McCain with the potato supplies needed to fuel their business in South America, whilst building sustainable livelihoods for local farmers. The result was a social business model that can be replicated across the world, enabling McCain’s business to thrive whilst impacting upon the lives and communities of many thousands of farmers.

Building business objectives into your partnership, and engaging with prospective partners personally and authentically, are two solid strategies for building a partnership of equals, and working side by side to co-design your partnership together is a natural extension of this.

In 2017, Natalie was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to visit the USA and Colombia and explore what businesses can learn from partnering with charities. Her research findings are published here.  

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