Adam Lane, Manager, Advisory Services, BSR

BSR strongly believes cross-sector partnerships are crucial to developing a just and sustainable world. For more than 20 years, we have helped businesses listen to and work with their partners to address pressing sustainability challenges. Since the CiYuan initiative started in China two years ago, we’ve been working non-stop to foster more partnerships—particularly between companies and NGOs.

While we recognize the huge value that companies can bring to NGOs directly and—through partnerships with NGOs—to society more broadly, we also recognize that such partnerships are not easy.

So what have we learned in the last two years?

Partners need to be open to partnerships. It sounds obvious, but in reality many NGOs are focused purely on fundraising for their existing program priorities and not on long-term growth. NGOs  need to also be flexible and consider the long-term benefits of partnering with companies.While companies, on the other hand, may talk about partnerships all the time, when it comes to community development in China, it is mostly a transactional relationship: funding a certain program or service. Companies need to identify a strategic benefit from partnering and incorporate such partnerships into their business strategies, not just their community investment programs. Until they do, partners will not be able to benefit from the broad financial and non-financial resources of the whole business, nor will companies gain any strategic benefit beyond improving their reputations.

Partners need capacity to partner. Partnerships take time and effort, yet few NGOs or companies have the time or make the effort to find the right partners, establish the partnership, and develop the relationship. Good partnerships do not happen overnight, and they will not be achieved if the NGO or company only invests 10 percent of its time on it. Unless there is buy-in from senior management and all the relevant departments in both NGOs and companies to resource and implement the partnership, both sides are prone to over-promise and under-deliver: NGOs over-promise in order to get funding, while companies often over-estimate their ability to leverage business resources that are under another department’s control.

Partnering is all about timing. No matter how many networking events are organized, how many introduction meetings are held, or how hard one tries, a successful partnership will only happen when both sides are ready. And it will take time to get interest, to align interests within organizations, and in many cases, it just may not be the right time for either partner. Partners may have differing priorities, or they may need time until they are ready to explore a new idea or a new partnership. Furthermore, companies’ funding is closely tied to fixed budget timelines, as are business strategies. No matter how fantastic the opportunity, if you miss that narrow window of opportunity, you’ll need to wait until it comes around again.

Partnering is all about people. Partnerships start with a connection between people on either side, and the interest, commitment and skills of those people will make or break the partnership no matter what. Developing partnerships also takes skill to engage with different backgrounds and working styles within a partner’s and one’s own organization. It’s important that partnerships are not wholly dependent on certain individuals who could leave an organization at any time, yet no matter the potential alignment between partners, unless you find the right person opposite you across the table, the partnership won’t happen.

China is now overflowing with incredible NGOs and incredible people on both sides. Yet partnerships are incredibly challenging. For more, and more effective, partnerships in China, there is a need for more support to get partners to the point where they are ready to partner, to build capacity amongst both sectors, to identify the right times to facilitate the connections between partners, and to foster the people that will make partnerships happen and make them work. As convinced as we are that partnerships are necessary, we know they take effort and we know that efforts such as CiYuan—which is doing all of this and more—are crucial to driving cross-sector partnerships that can make China more sustainable.