Many of the limitations and challenges associated with cross-sector social impact partnerships are rooted in their points of origin. More intentionality, responsibility, and creativity are necessary to unlock a greater number of truly catalytic opportunities. 

As the field of corporate social impact matures, organizations are embracing cross-sector partnerships as a means to advancing social and environmental goals. With ample institutional resources and access to wide-ranging capabilities, corporations are able to envision and invest in big ideas. Increasing attention from the private sector is altering the architecture of cross-sector collaboration, creating new opportunities for ambitious projects and deepening value alignment. 

At the same time, exciting examples of partnership activity are often flanked by examples in which opportunities go unmet. Given asymmetries in resourcing and capabilities, partnerships are too often rooted in matching dependencies between organizations. When that’s the case, partners satiate certain needs while overlooking more powerful approaches to collaboration, leaving behind big, creative, and sustainable ideas. Partners also lower their ceiling for impact when they proceed with too narrow an understanding of their own assets within an ecosystem, stunting potential unlocks that bloom from outside – and occasionally unlikely – perspectives. And, when organizations neglect to systematically embed trust and accountability, underlying relationships risk failure – in turn jeopardizing catalytic opportunities. 

These barriers to a catalytic result are best addressed at or before the point of partnership inception. Anchored in interviews with social impact leaders representing large corporations, NGOs, and philanthropies, this report presents eight actions that organizations and their leaders can take to raise their ceiling for impact. 

The eight actions:

  • Bring on cross-sector expertise and perspective 
  • Place a premium on emotional intelligence (EQ) 
  • Mine ideas from business units and individuals beyond your social impact team 
  • Embrace third-party views of your capabilities and liabilities 
  • Open dialogue with partners-to-be about your asymmetrical advantages 
  • Interlock organizational incentives 
  • Engage outside facilitators during (and after) ideation 
  • Hardwire feedback loops

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