Over the past six weeks, I have traveled from meeting to meeting in Washington, D.C., Bangkok, and Geneva to develop opportunities for BSR to partner with funders and others to provide resources to tackle challenges as diverse and broad as childhood nutrition, climate change adaptation, and energy efficiency. These discussions have gotten me thinking about the importance of innovative partnerships in addressing big challenges, and how business can be more effective in its work with government, civil society, and even private funders.

What makes a successful partnership, especially when it involves disparate groups? “Partnership” itself means many different things to companies, local stakeholders, and beyond. Perhaps the simplest starting point is to optimize the strengths of each partner. Or put differently, the best way to form a successful partnership is to work in the space between the groups’ overlapping interests.

At BSR, our approach to partnership innovation is rooted in two things: building cross-sector networks of nontraditional partners who come together to solve critical social and environmental sustainability challenges, and creating self-sustaining programs. We work closely with private foundations and development agencies globally to identify and communicate to our members about innovative, “outside-the-box” partnership opportunities.

An example of this is HERproject, BSR’s factory-based women’s health training program. Although BSR is not a health expert, we saw an opportunity for our member companies to help solve a pressing global health need by working with their factory suppliers. As it turns out, women in manufacturing regions in Asia and North Africa face significant health risks, including anemia, reproductive infections, and unplanned pregnancies. Since many of these women work in the supply chain factories of our member companies, we used these factories as “classrooms” for health education.

But we still needed the health experts, and, as such, we partnered with the Packard Foundation and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency to access both funding and a network of partner resources that focus on health.

To make the case for business to take action on this issue, we also partnered with the Levi Strauss Foundation, which helped us conduct return-on-investment (ROI) studies that quantified the value of factory workers’ increased productivity and reduced turnover and absenteeism that resulted from participation in HERproject.

In less than five years, HERproject has reached more than 72,000 female workers around the world, and we have created a sustainable program in eight developing countries that will continue beyond the era of donor-funded support. We did this by incorporating our global supply chain knowledge and access to suppliers with the health and impact evaluation expertise of our partners.

Another outside-the-box partnership example is the Global Fund and SAB Miller’s Tavern Intervention Program, an effort to reduce HIV infection rates in South Africa. The Geneva-based Global Fund, which leads an international effort to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, particularly in Africa, provided the health expertise. And SAB Miller, one of the world’s leading brewers and a large employer in South Africa, provided access to local shebeens, or taverns, to raise HIV awareness among tavern patrons. It is a great example of a company thinking creatively about how to engage customers in a way that also benefits broader society.

Companies that are looking to expand their CSR programs have an opportunity to make a bigger impact by adopting the model of these innovative partnerships.

To start, think about how to engage a wide variety of stakeholders. Few organizations serve as a one-stop shop for partnership design. In HERproject, we have multiple partners—from private funders who supply the “venture capital” for the project as a whole to the local health-care organizations who administer the individual programs based on local needs. Indeed, our experience has taught us that more versus fewer partners, despite potential management complexities, yields better results than outsourcing to a single entity.

Next, consider ways to form a partnership that don’t rely solely on financial resources. One lesson we learned from the Great Recession is that it’s possible to get just as much value from in-kind support as it is from actual dollars. Importantly, the Tavern Intervention Program makes use of existing resources (the taverns) rather than creating an elaborate event to gather the target population. While this might not work with every partner, particularly in developing countries, a US$100,000 program can be just as impactful as a US$1 million program if the right partners are in place.

Finally, focus on needs, not headlines. While it is tempting to design programs that create compelling stories, increasingly savvy consumers and stakeholder groups will respond more positively to company-led programs that take advantage of corporate expertise to address international development needs. So, if, like BSR, you find opportunities in the supply chain, don’t reject the idea because you can’t identify a convenient celebrity spokesmodel. We view partnerships that occupy this space, i.e. the business-development nexus, as the ultimate focus of BSR’s global Partnership Development activities.