Why and how to build cross-sector partnerships: Lessons from Ukraine


Oleksandra Lytvynenko


‘True excellence is a product of synergy,’ a common saying goes. For the third sector, it’s especially relevant.

It’s too common for nonprofits advocating important causes to be understaffed and under-resourced. Brokering cross-sector partnerships is perhaps the most powerful way to get out of the woods and multiply their impact on the world.

Over the past years, Zagoriy Foundation has built up many partnerships across different sectors in Ukraine. We are also studying international experience and sharing it with less experienced Ukrainian charities.

The growing importance of partnerships in the nonprofit sector
The idea of combining resources to achieve great things is hardly new, but it’s become increasingly important for charities over the past couple of decades.

As researchers Michael L. Shier and Femida Handy summarize it, ‘collaborative relationships involving nonprofits have become a necessary endeavor given the complexity… of emergent social issues.’ In other words, today’s problems are increasingly complex – too complex to tackle them alone.

Cross-sector partnerships generate additional value for the society in general, allowing all sides to combine their unique capabilities to achieve results they wouldn’t achieve alone. For example, a commercial organisation might have money but lack social recognition, while a nonprofit might struggle financially but have powerful tools to help the company build its corporate social responsibility framework.

In the narrower sense, brokering partnerships is also an effective way for a charity to operate. There are many advantages to creating cross-sector partnerships; just saving costs is a powerful enough reason to take partnership building seriously.

Partnerships are beneficial for the third sector outside of material support as well – some things cannot or at least should not be bought with money. Examples might include building capacity for charity staff and leadership, as well as strengthening the organisation’s programs.

Cases of beneficial partnerships, in Ukraine and across the globe
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of partnerships is saving costs. It’s typical for charities to be lacking financial resources on executing all the important work they want to do; paying for everything with donor money is both unreasonable and impossible.

Partnering with the business sector is the most common path here. Philanthropic organisations can have profound benefits from partnering with responsible companies eager to develop their CSR. Apart from direct monetary support, in-kind donations can include everything from pro-bono consultations by a law firm to promotion help by a communications agency, to free training by an education company.

Zagoriy Foundation is partnering with Ukrainian companies with values common to ours. For example, we have a partnership with Mironivsky Hliboproduct (MHP), Ukraine’s largest agricultural produce company. Jointly we are launching first-ever fundraising capacity building programme Charity Match. The programme gives practical tools to nonprofits to set up and implement a successful fundraising campaign, also the participants have the opportunity to double their fundraising through the programme. This works both ways: nonprofits can learn and successfully raise money while donors can support selected organisations that showed their efficiency.

Cooperation between Breast Cancer Now, a UK charity, and Marks & Spencer, a global retailer, offers a great recent example of global cross-sector partnership. In 2020, the two organisations teamed up to develop post-surgery underwear for women who have undergone breast cancer surgery. The campaign helped increase awareness, raise money, and solve a specific problem for disease survivors.

Partnerships can also come from other sectors, such as the government. As well as with business, there’s powerful value exchange in nonprofits cooperating with government agencies. For example, in Ukraine, while some government agencies lack direct financial means, they might command powerful promotion resources or other capabilities not accessible to other sectors.

Zagoriy Foundation has been partnering with Ukrainian Cultural Foundation (UCF), a state agency created to provide support to culture and art in the country. We have become the first UCF’s strategic partner among private charitable foundations, with a goal to develop philanthropy in the cultural sector.

Zagoriy Foundation could have started its own programme of grantmaking in the cultural field, but partnership with the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation allows us to scale the impact. In 2020, our cooperation helped create two major projects – ‘Encyclopedia of Ukrainian Architecture,’ a multimedia online platform, and an interactive map of archeological and historical monuments of the Poltava Region.

Cooperation with the news media is also particularly important for philanthropic organisations. Establishing partnerships with journalist outlets helps spread the word, disseminating our messages to a larger audience, as well as scale our target audience.

Most recently, Zagoriy Foundation has established collaboration with The Village, a prominent Ukrainian media outlet, to create ‘Station 451,’ a podcast about literature. This partnership helps create a quality cultural product, as well as spread our foundation’s values.

A positive-sum game: what to keep in mind when brokering partnerships
Commercial companies are often faced with a zero-sum game – for someone to win, someone else has to lose. The key to successful partnerships for the charitable sector is to play a positive-sum game, creating an equilibrium in which both sides reap benefits from the cooperation.

To achieve this goal, it’s important for the values of prospective partners to align with your organisation’s values. While small misunderstandings can be worked out in the process, major differences in culture and values will most certainly hinder a partnership. So, don’t be afraid to signal your values and ‘market’ them when looking to establish collaboration.

Partnerships also hinge on quality cooperation, teamwork, and mutual communication. The partnership’s value grows over time as both sides engage in exploration of the different ways they can mutually benefit from the collaboration.

As Harvard professor James E. Austin, a leading researcher on social partnerships, puts it, ‘powerful collaborations need to be vigorous learning organisations continually searching for more efficient ways to work together and more effective means of generating value.’

Perhaps most significantly, keep in mind that a good partnership fills the need of both sides. Successful cross-sector collaboration provides a value exchange in which the two sides benefit from each others’ complementing resources.

Austin compares it with the ‘beauty is in the eyes of the beholder’ principle – the benefits don’t have to be arithmetically equal for both partners, but both of them should feel they gain from the exchange. Once again, mutual communication is key here.

Oleksandra Lytvynenko is head of Development and Partnerships at Zagoriy Foundation

Tagged in: Funding practice

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