3 Tips for Mastering Cross-Sector Partnerships

Something special happened in San Francisco last week—and I’m not talking about the last days of Fogust burning off, making way for sunny September to finally show its face. The world’s top innovators, investors, foundations, institutions and social entrepreneurs gathered by the bay to attend SOCAP13, the world-renowned conference dedicated to accelerating the good economy through social enterprise and impact investing. More than 1,800 participants from 45+ countries flocked to the historic Fort Mason Center to explore new business models and investable opportunities in areas ranging from public health to faith.

I was fortunate to attend the conference for the first time this year, and if there’s one thing I came away with, it’s this: Things are definitely not  ‘business as usual.’ Moving from session to session, I was inspired by stories of people breaking down old business and cultural barriers to form strategic partnerships in the name of advancing social good. While much of the focus was on the business strategy behind structuring effective partnerships, we at Fenton know that communications plays a critical role in the success of cross-sector partnerships.

Whether you are a communications specialist on a CSR team, working alone for a small nonprofit, the head of a social enterprise startup, or part of a third-party agency like us, here are the top three things you need to know about communicating in the good economy:

1. Pitch reciprocity.
Gone are the days where partnerships are made between a giver and a receiver. Today’s successful partnerships are grounded in reciprocity, and the key to winning that partnership in the first place is being able to communicate how each side will contribute and benefit equally. I like to think of this as crafting your partnership’s master narrative. Ask yourself: What’s our shared value? What’s the problem both sides are trying to solve? What’s the barrier to the solution? And what can each side lend to the equation in order to arrive at the solution? As one session participant put it rather bluntly, “Don’t come to a corporation with a binary question of will you fund this? Check yes/check no. The answer will be no. Come to us with a problem, a challenge, and be ready for a discussion about how a partnership can help solve it.”


2. Master both sides of the business.
In the good economy, where innovation is driven by cross-sector partnerships, the new communications guru doesn’t operate in silos. Whether you’re coming from the corporate side or the nonprofit side, you will be better at your job if you can demonstrate a sophisticated command of both worlds. Pinpoint which metrics each side cares most about, and develop a communications plan that answers to both visions of success. Identify where there might be mismatches in organizational structure, culture and politics, and facilitate open communication between partners. Don’t underestimate the value of internal communications in the good economy.


3. No matter what, be flexible.
Be flexible in the way you structure your partnership, and be flexible in the way you allow it to change with time. I must have heard this one in every session I attended. Why? Because there is no one-size-fits-all, high-growth, high-impact, world-saving partnership prescription. Use your communications know-how to foster partner flexibility, especially as conditions change. Lastly, don’t forget to keep your crisis communications skills in your back pocket at all times. After all, sometimes these high-impact, high-risk partnerships fail, and the best thing we can do is remain calm and learn from it.