05/01/2012 01:17 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2012

Lessons Learned From the Frontlines of Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships

At a State Department impact investing event on Friday (great event, by the way -- go Kris and Lala!), I was asked to speak about why and how companies can engage successfully in long-term impact investing. I've discussed the benefits for companies in an earlier HuffPost blog, so I won't focus on that here. But I do think the HOW to go about it could still use some elaboration.

First, a little background/context:

I'm happy to say that it's finally clear to most folks that business has a key role to play in solving many of the world's toughest problems -- from food security to environmental degradation to economic development. And, so do governments and civil society. Only by combining the unique outlook, skills, capabilities and resources of these actors can we get to the sustainable, scalable and replicable models we all want to see and the world so desperately needs. So, multi-stakeholder partnerships -- combining the power of companies, countries and civil society -- are the way to go. But when we all have different agendas and, frankly, even speak what sometimes feels like different languages, HOW do you even begin?

As a businessperson first and philanthropist second, let me start by saying that first and foremost to get public companies to engage in something that is long-term, complicated and largely unproven, there must be a strong financial or strategic business rationale. You will never get real corporate money into this space without a compelling business case. And, I think there is one to be made. Each will be different, based on the industry and the company. But as we've seen in the various partnerships we're part of -- from a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation partnership on cashews in West Africa, to a WFP childhood nutrition project we're engaged in in Indonesia and Bangladesh, to our own Cocoa Partnership in Ghana -- there are a range of real business benefits that can be achieved.

Knowing what YOU want is the right starting point. But even that isn't enough to succeed. So here are five more lessons we've learned from our work that might be helpful.

1) Ensure ALL the partners start with a common shared objective. And that the objective is clear and has both societal and business benefits spelled out and that neither side would declare the project a success unless both societal and business aims are achieved.

2) Recognize that multi-partner collaborations take longer and are more complicated. So set expectations for the longer-term -- five years minimum. That's a long time in political or corporate life these days -- but it's also the only way to ensure broad, lasting change, so be sure the business and societal cases are compelling enough that even leadership changes won't derail your efforts.

3) Secure and segregate at least your base funding from the outset. That helps ensure that even amidst corporate or political change your program will be covered in the time before it begins to show meaningful results -- often up to the first two to three years.

4) Know the various actors will have very different perspectives and motivations, so be prepared to talk a lot early on in order to ensure that in the end everyone is equally committed to the outcome and that relationships are built on mutual transparency, trust and accountability. Then, put it in writing.

5) Allow each actor to do what they do best. For example, companies should focus on R&D, innovation and market creation. National/local government is needed for things such as infrastructure, risk mitigation, land rights, legal protections and creating an overall supportive policy environment. International donor partners (like USAID, DFID, WFP, etc.) can also play a key role both by investing in underpinning programs such as education, school feeding, sanitation, hygiene, extension services, etc., as well as advocating for the supportive enabling environment on issues such as trade, finance, human rights, etc.

So these are some of the things we've learned. What about you? Share your lessons so we can all get better at doing this "seemingly unnatural" but vitally important thing -- partnering up! Multi-stakeholder partnerships will likely never be the easiest. But they can be the best for tackling major social issues.