Reaching Your Potential Through Partnerships: Lessons Learned from SOCAP 2016

The meeting of the minds at #SOCAP16 was pretty incredible. Plenaries included leaders from at Acumen, IDEO, Stanford, PayPal, Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs and many, many, MANY more.
09/26/2016 04:27 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2017

We believe that today’s problems require more collaborative approaches that break down silos, recruit new talent and foster greater cooperation.” - Jason Rissman, OpenIDEO Managing Director at IDEO

The meeting of the minds at #SOCAP16 was pretty incredible. Plenaries included leaders from at Acumen, IDEO, Stanford, PayPal, Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs and many, many, MANY more. Thousands of impact-driven, business minded professionals assembled to discuss ways to create capital markets that were more inclusive and more responsible.

In order to unlock capital for impact entrepreneurs around the world it will take a collective effort at both the local and global level” - Jack Knellinger, Principal & Co-Founder of the impact fund accelerator, Capria

But the essence of SOCAP is not about what happens on-stage. SOCAP is the world’s largest petri dish for impact-driven partnership building. And, as we highlighted earlier in this column, it’s partnership – and the innovations and risk-taking that happens with them –  that are the key to helping us achieve a more sustainable and inclusive planet.

Partnerships are so ingrained in the way that social impact organizations operate that we tend to underrate their significance, especially if they are non-monetary partnerships. But, in case you need a refresher, here are just five of the countless benefits to social impact organizations realized their through partnerships:

1. Better understand markets and foster innovation. As Rebecca Masisak, CEO of TechSoup shared, “Our partners across the TechSoup Global Network, provide a deep understanding of, and connection to, local civil society. Partnerships continually spur our evolution and open new lines of thinking internally.

2. Increase capacity. According to Luni Libes, Founder and Managing Director of the conscious company accelerator, Fledge, “The key to the value of those accelerators is partnerships.  Accelerators act somewhat like a marketplace, bringing a collection of startups to one location, which then attracts investors and mentors.  It's a marketplace of connections and partnerships, far more than cash, that accelerates our startups.

3. Accelerate learning. Partnerships also bring new and unexpected perspectives – that burst of surprise when an old way of thinking is turned on its head... like a few words from a grandmother that lead to innovation in vaccine delivery, according Bridget Brennan, Director, Global Engagement & Partnerships for PATH.

4. Reach more people. According to Tim Freundlich, President of ImpactAssets, partnerships give “Field building and market moving ability as we eventually reach not just to the existing client in question, but their tens, hundreds, even thousands of other clients over time.

5. Access new resources. As Yasmina Zaidman, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Acumen, highlights, “partnerships are critical to accessing the resources, capabilities and networks that can both help these companies to scale and also bring their innovations into the mainstream.

Innovation that matters requires partnerships: Acting alone holds back progress. Successfully scaling up social innovation requires government, the private sector, and the social sector to come together, along with strong global leadership, to make an impact. I’m hard pressed to think of a single social innovation that has gone to scale without these three sectors working in partnership.” - Steve Davis, CEO of PATH

Here are 5 tips from SOCAP leaders on how your organization can build more effective partnerships:

1. Listen first.

Yasmina (Acumen) suggests that you always “Start with listening. It takes time and trust to really understand what drives an organization to seek partners. Great partnerships solve big problems that the partners can't solve on their own, so honesty about those problems and priorities is key”.

2. Understand real needs and deliver relevant value propositions.

Bridget from PATH recommends to “Develop a few key evaluation questions that will quickly help you know whether there is enough common ground to warrant a serious conversation. Be ready to articulate your objectives, assets, and needs for the partnership. What do you have to gain? What do you have to offer?  What is missing to help you achieve your mission?”

A further tip for this comes from Rebecca at Techsoup: “Look for where you can uniquely add value to the partnership and where partners can offer more value than if you tried to do everything yourself.

3. Do your research and Invest time in making the partnership happen.

USAID Development Innovation Venture’s Portfolio Manager, MC Dinh suggests that you “Do research on the type of partnerships the organization has done in the past, offer something that lines up with their priorities.

As additional guidance, Luni (of Fledge) shares that “A common mistake by first-time entrepreneurs is to spend a lot of time meeting with potential partners, expecting to find one or more who will do the hard work of pushing a new product out to customers. Even if your product sits on the shelf at a retailer, it's up to you to get customers to walk in the store, find it, and buy it. The same is true for nearly all services.

4. Make a clear ask, and be persistent.

MC of USAID suggests that you “Have [your] ask very clear. Short, succinct questions usually get the fastest, best result. [And] be persistent, try to receive feedback if the potential partner organization declines to engage at this time. If the deficiencies they've shared with you aren't deal-breakers, apply again with a strengthened proposal.

5. Learn fast and improve.

Rebeca (Techsoup) shared that “Our visions are, naturally, only part of the larger landscape. Look at your intervention as a continuous test and learn from what your partners already know. You will avoid mistakes already made, gain perspective, insight and, if they decide to work with you, change the world faster, together.

Jack from Capria builds on this by saying that you should continue to “Test, build, reflect, evaluate and decide on appropriate next steps to realize the vision you both hold.

In a discussion post-SOCAP, Yasmina from Acumen shared this tidbit of wisdom that resonates with all I had the chance to talk with at SOCAP:

Partnering is hard, but it is the path forward for catalytic change at scale.

Do you have thoughts for building more effective social impact partnerships? Let us know in the comments below!

Special thanks to the following for their insights and words in helping draft this article: Jason Rissman, OpenIDEO Managing Director at IDEO; Jack Knellinger, Principal & Co-Founder of Capria; Rebecca Masisak, CEO of TechSoup; Luni Libes, Founder and Managing Director of Fledge; Bridget Brennan, Director of Global Engagement & Partnerships for PATH; Tim Freundlich, President of ImpactAssetsYasmina Zaidman, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Acumen; MC Dinh, Portfolio Manager of USAID's Development Innovation Ventures.