Stepping down-the-aisle in a cross-sector partnership? Know your partners’ strengths and weaknesses – know yours. By Jessica Long – Washington DC

It seems that in ten years a lot has changed in the international development landscape. Perhaps the most significant change has been a growing pragmatism over which individuals and organisations have the specific skills to tackle specific social and economic challenges. Cross-sector partnerships between governments, the private sector and NGOs are becoming the norm and a cadre of new leaders is emerging bringing skills and expertise from each of the sectors – you could even say we are witnessing the emergence of a 4th sector.

But what makes a successful cross-sector partnership? At Accenture Development Partnerships – a not-for-profit business within Accenture that I have worked for 7 years – this is a question we ask constantly. We have worked with partnerships for 10 years now, all over the world. What follows are a few thoughts of my own, garnered from colleagues and clients, in answer.

The initial step is to define exactly what you are trying to achieve. Why set up a partnership in the first place when you could go it alone? PR is not a good enough answer. Nor is philanthropy or perceived stakeholder willingness. Only when there is a significant gap, and a clear understanding of the greater value that can be achieved by joining-up, should partnership be explored. Partnerships are difficult and have a high failure rate, therefore you need to be certain that this is the right avenue to pursue.

This first question would seem to be even more urgent for NGOs, especially in the light of findings from the UN Global Compact and Accenture’s recent study of 1000 CEOs which showed that, in fact, businesses are less likely to forge partnerships with NGOs than before, and may be more likely to go it alone. 

Nonetheless, if you align on goals, the next question is whether you can work together. Invest heavily up front to make sure that each partner is fully committed. A partnership is a relationship and not all relationships ‘click’. None of this is surprising but understanding early where the frictions are arms a partnership against a communication breakdown. And keeps donors confident.

The next step is crucial. It involves setting the right pace and scale. Time and again we have seen a delivery pace that works for one partner but not another. Likewise we have seen excellent projects get stuck at pilot phases, unable to be scaled-up or delivered when the initial donor funding has come to an end. The whole international development sector has a challenge to scale-up successful projects and replicate them in different markets. Pilot paralysis can be deeply unrewarding. How can a project be self-sustaining in the long-term? Bear in mind that although donors often like to invest in new ideas, greater impact could be achieved from funding and developing existing successes.

Don’t forget about budget. Often a for-profit will enter a partnership with specific long-term business objectives in mind; some of which will be achieved via successful partnership programmes. Sometimes a shorter term horizon is preferred. Either way, the strategy impacts on how forthcoming budgets will be for the project itself and – importantly – in taking the learnings to the next step.

The final challenge is one that will be familiar to almost everyone reading this blog. How to evaluate success? This is something Accenture Development Partnerships has been working on as a team for some time. We know well – we have seen it – that success can mean different things to different partners and that’s why we strongly advocate taking step one very seriously. Why is the partnership forming to tackle this specific development question? What is each of the parties trying to achieve and can these aims be reconciled in the agreed timescale? What happens if one partner leaves?

To the broader picture, I am fascinated by the potential of two particular ‘disrupters’ to revolutionise the way we scale-up or replicate successful partnerships. These are technology and new financial models. In partnership with NetHope, my team has uncovered some exciting findings when it comes to the potential of different technologies to spur economic development. On the finance front, Development Impact Bonds and Social Yield Notes could hold exciting prospects, allowing partnerships to become more fluid and even compete with each other.

That is to come. But in my own work I am convinced that well designed, properly funded and sensitively managed partnerships can be a great force for good.  


Jessica Long is a Managing Director with Accenture and has over 15 years of national and international experience in strategy, program delivery and technology within the corporate, government and development sectors.  Jessica is on the global leadership team of Accenture Development Partnerships (ADP) and leads ADP’s suite of solutions across Program Innovation & Impact, Partnership Services and Organizational Strengthening & Enablement. She is also World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.