Partnerships between public, voluntary and private sector organizations are the Holy Grail for social marketers. In practice, these types of partnerships exist more on paper than in action. While leaders in all three sectors set rhetorical priorities for working more effectively with each other, the mechanics of establishing and sustaining them can be more trouble than they seem to be worth. How to address some of these concerns and enable partnerships to achieve the desired outcomes were the themes of the last Innovations in Social Marketing conference. The proceedings of the conference appear in the Fall-Winter 2005 issue of Social Marketing Quarterly.
In his overview of the conference, Greg Niblett noted the importance of partnerships in virtually all social marketing projects whether they have environmental and policy change as their intended outcome or the implementation of programs aimed at specific behaviors of priority audiences/consumer groups. Key resources and infrastructure that exist in the commercial sector, and are often lacking in the social marketing sphere (and motivate agencies sponsoring social marketing programs to seek them out), include the lack of a sales force, established distribution channels, pricing history, a legacy of promotional successes, research and development, and manufacturing capacity. The intent of ‘partnership development’ is to establish a structure to achieve outcomes for each organization they could not reach on their own. Yet, Greg pointed out “In reality, it is a term that is used to finesse power differences and soften the difficult reality of subordinate relations.”
Several of the presenters focused on an analysis of the exchange relationship between partners. The immediate need is to determine how engaging with partners fits with each organization’s business or operational mission and strategy. Next is usually to determine what are the mutually rewarding benefits for all parties that can be supported with specific objectives and accountability standards, the ‘right’ business and financial arrangement (this can be complicated by constraints placed on public sector agencies who also regulate industry sectors and also cannot commit to exclusive relationships with corporations), and a shared understanding of the ‘why are we in this together’ and ‘for how long’ contours of the effort.
Representatives from all three sectors examined what each brought to the partnership dance. High visibility in the market place and/or among specific priority audiences, high credibility among influencers and other intermediaries and access to resources are the most important assets each partner has in the beginning of the partnership. The exercise of due diligence by all parties centers around how involvement in the partnership may negatively impact these three assets as well as their relationships with audiences, advocacy groups, regulators, stakeholders and other organizations (peers, competitors, partners in other projects).
Mona Grieser ended one of the sessions with a short list of recommendations that I’ve paraphrased here as Pointers for Partnerships.
- Invite everyone in the system to the initial discussions.
- Let them talk about their view of the world as it relates to the issue at hand.
- Find the common ground.
- Explore a common future.
- Dance with the people you trust not to step on your toes or
otherwise embarrass you (not necessarily the ones who are the best at what they
What is interesting to me about the discussions at the conference, as represented in the proceedings, is that there is a lot of time given to roles, taxonomies, and the vetting of ‘who is acceptable and who is not’ as a partner. The actual management of this process received much less attention. Jim Mintz, formerly at Health Canada, included in his keys for success (1) assigning clear roles and responsibilities, (2) providing publicity for each partner on their contributions, (3) having an approval and verification process for all products and activities, and (4) providing for timeliness and quality assurance. One of his comments, having capable and experienced staff representing each partner may be the most important contributor to success. What the qualities and competencies are of these successful partnership managers is the unanswered question.
Interorganizational Relations Theory notes that organizations make decisions about whether to enter collaborative relations with other organizations based essentially on a cost-benefit, or exchange, model. Clearly, having mutual goals, similar interests and values, and norms that favor collaborative enterprises are also part of the mix that need to be considered in creating partnerships and moving from so-called “obligational” networks to more “action or promotional” ones to ultimately “systemic” or long-term ones.