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Harnessing the Potential of Cross-Sector Partnerships

Against the current backdrop of sector challenges, nonprofits have a tremendous opportunity to use cross-sector partnerships to support their mission by accessing highly skilled and engaged volunteers. Unlike previous times when partnerships with corporations were mainly philanthropic in nature and volunteer experience was predominantly time-based, there is a growing trend towards a more skills-based partnership approach which mutually benefits both corporations and nonprofits.

The efforts required to make this happen may be less than you think when you consider some key talent management pressures in the private sector and the strong competency of the nonprofit sector in building successful alliances and partnerships.

What’s in it for them?

There are a few reasons why companies are more likely than ever to consider the value of partnerships. First, these relationships have been useful for managing different kinds of risk including environmental, reputational and operational. Historically, philanthropic gifts have been used to manage reputational risks. Environmental risks have been managed through partnership with various advocacy groups. More recently, companies have realized the value of partnerships for managing operational risks including those related to their talent needs.

Second, from the employee perspective, there are two priorities that research consistently shows are key to their employment experience: expectations for learning and development opportunities; and a strong desire to work for an organization with a positive corporate citizenship profile.

Finally, at a broader level, most organizations are aware that their employees are involved in volunteer experiences. By amplifying their involvement in this process, however, they can also realize a cost-effective approach for improving their state of talent readiness as well as promoting themselves in a positive corporate citizenship light.

A history of collaboration

Nonprofits have a history of using strategic partnerships to support their mission. Advocacy organizations for example, have partnered with program delivery peers to affect change at the sector level. Partnerships have also been formed to achieve operational synergies. A consortium of organizations that I previously worked with used their collective size to secure procurement savings for a range of goods and services ranging from office supplies to director’s insurance.

But what about partnerships between nonprofits and private sector organizations? Can they also support a nonprofit mandate? Increasingly, the growth of corporate citizenship focus as well as academic insights suggests that the answer to this question is a resounding yes!

Where to begin?

As with most forms of partnership development, outward actions flow from self-reflection. Spend some time reviewing your existing directives, including board mandates, strategic and operational plans as well as staff input to develop a concise summary of your vision, mission, program offerings and related social impact success measures. Collectively, these elements provide opportunities to identify areas of common ground between potential partners – the foundation for a successful cross-sector partnership.

You may want to consider completing a quick Talent Needs Assessment like the example below:

Figure 1: Talent Needs Assessment

Consider for example, the type of expertise you may require at the board level over the next two to five years to achieve your organization’s objectives. Which leadership skills will you need to achieve these goals? Which personality characteristics are you looking for in board director? Identifying these needs before you put out a call will help you zero in on the right candidates. By contrast, if your organization elects board members at its Annual General Meeting with no prior candidate vetting, then you have some work to do.

Next, use the same gap analysis approach to develop an inventory of functional/technical skills. For example, can you benefit from human resource (HR) expertise to support your job evaluation program (a prerequisite for Pay Equity compliance) or recruitment efforts? Can you benefit from information technology (IT) expertise to assist with a planned technology upgrade? Could you benefit from finance expertise for support funding applications? This level also includes identifying needs from those in skills trades such as plumbers and electricians, who can offer a specific type of expertise to fulfil a particular requirement.

Finally, consider the range of opportunities for general volunteers over a period of time. Beyond headcount, also consider personal attributes that may make the volunteer experience more meaningful to both parties. For example, are some specific behaviour/personality traits more desirable than others? Do they need to have specific credentials for liability reasons? The end result of this exercise is to ensure a more strategic match between your organization’s needs and potential volunteers. Frustration will arise if you enlist high-calibre volunteers to take on low impact roles.

This approach reflects an evolution in the management and use of volunteers. Volunteer resourcing assumes a more skills-based orientation compared to the traditional time-based approach. A recent client experience may help to illustrate this shift in volunteer orientation.

An organization was wrestling with how to respond to a request from a large technology company in the local community to provide a significant number of volunteers over a two-day period as part of their employee volunteer program. While appreciative of the volunteer pledge, the organization had liability and logistics concerns with managing a large number of unexpected volunteers over such a short period of time given their environment of supporting special needs children. Using a template similar to Figure 1, the organization conducted a talent management audit to project its volunteer human resource needs over the next three years. Along with other areas of functional expertise, IT needs were identified for both immediate and planned projects. The organization responded to the company and developed a partnership to assist with IT resourcing. The volunteer screening process ensured a degree of fit between learning and development needs and nature of required work. The partnership also accelerated project completion timelines with no incremental costs.

Cross-sector networking

In light of current workload priorities, it may be easy to shelve this approach in the “nice to do, but don’t have the time” category. However, the potential benefits of developing a sustained and pro bono talent pool justify the upfront investment of time. As an observation, many organizations continue to be one-dimensional in their partnership focus and only seek funding support. It is likely that they have not fully realized the more immediate potential cost-savings benefits that can result from partnerships that provide access to human capital. Of course these partnerships also lay the foundation for future donors.

You may already have access to private sector networks through your existing family members, social networks, corporate donors and funding partners. Attending select Chamber of Commerce events is also a good strategy. The bottom line is that increased visibility within private sector networks affords greater probability for building partnerships that support your organizational goals. As mentioned previously, companies are increasingly open to these partnerships, so why not put yourself out there?

But before venturing out on your networking assignments, spend some time familiarizing yourself with the talent management process shown below. The process map is commonly used in the private sector and highlights the spectrum of HR programs which could provide opportunities for partnerships.

Figure 2: Talent management process and common opportunities for cross-sector partnership impact

Your networking goals should include building your awareness of the “pain points” of local companies with respect to their HR programs. For example, is there a recruitment challenge for a particular type of industry expertise in your community? Second, get a sense of which organizations are well known for their emphasis on training and development. Third, build a picture of which organizations are actively involved corporate citizens – and which are not. The collective intelligence from your networking experiences coupled with the outcomes of your talent needs assessment should be helpful for refining partnership opportunities.

What might these partnerships look like?

As with most relationships, partnerships won’t happen overnight. Also, even though they all have common dimensions (e.g. a memorandum of understanding to highlight roles, responsibilities, and timelines) they will be shaped by the unique blend of partnership needs and capabilities. In reference to Figure 2, the following are examples of previous client engagements which illustrate how powerful partnerships are for supporting capacity building efforts.

A corporate citizenship audit of a private sector company revealed that the communications function was the only internal champion of all community partnerships and programs. Recognizing the potential value of these efforts to support HR priorities, the HR director commissioned a review of existing recruitment and selection practices to identify opportunities for integrating their corporate citizenship mandate. Some data mining exercises revealed that recent new hires were attracted to the company in part due to the range of cultural events in the local community. The company connected with the nonprofits that sponsored the cultural events and developed a partnership to enhance their leadership recruitment efforts. In exchange, the nonprofits benefited from increased financial support for promoting the cultural events and access to volunteers. To be clear, the company did not engage in the partnerships for altruistic reasons. Instead, they recognized the business value of these partnerships in attracting top leadership talent.

Due to financial constraints, a company was forced to reduce its learning and development budget. Realizing the potential impact on employee engagement, and keeping in line with its corporate citizenship mandate of community involvement, the client modified its learning and development program to include a community-based dimension. Cluster mapping exercises were used to identify local nonprofits and create calendars of their functional needs. For example, a marketing calendar highlighted the marketing needs of nonprofits over a specific time period. Employees were subsequently matched to the various opportunities based on their learning and development objectives and talent capabilities. All stakeholders benefited from the partnership: the company developed a creative and cost-effective learning and development program; the employee benefited from continued access to learning and development experiences as well as the opportunity to do meaningful work in their communities; and finally, the nonprofits accessed pro bono expertise which supported their capacity building efforts. A win-win-win situation.

Just do it! 
The time is right for leveraging partnerships to address the strategic and operational needs of nonprofits. Corporations are increasingly integrating community stakeholders into their business models to manage risks and address employee engagement expectations. Nonprofits are experts in the latter and can benefit from increased learning about the former. How ready are you to jump in? Odds are that you are probably further along than you think.

Written by Dave Nanderam, Ph.D., President of TapestryBuilder

This article is also published on Charity Village.

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