Partnership — From the Stone Age to Tri-Sector Ecosystems - Linda Keene Solomon

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“Partnership” is a word that most of us use daily in both our professional and personal lives. Its application precedes even the creation of the actual word and dates back to the Stone Age when the survival instinct necessitated a need for mutually beneficial alliances. Today, the partnership covers a broad spectrum of uses, from describing a legal entity to representing an endearing term of companionship. Regardless of the context intended, “partnership” is associated with a form of “collaboration towards a shared goal(s).”

Beyond its everyday use, the partnership is gaining momentum as one of the leading approaches to tackling big, wicked problems. Today, and in the foreseeable future, partnerships that maximize the strengths of their members are driving unprecedented growth and innovation as well as positively impacting our global economy, society, and environment at–large.

No longer should we limit ourselves to only think of public-private–partnerships (also known as “P3s”) for solving today’s complex and evolving challenges! New and different partnerships are forming beyond boundaries that existed even a decade ago. Food banks, for example, are partnering with major grocery chains to introduce more nutritious food products into low-income communities and promote the new, healthier brands of grocery chains. Local governments are beginning to recognize that they can improve the quality of school meal programs and reduce program costs by joining food bank — grocery chain partnerships.

While the “tri-sector” partnership is not a new concept, it is still considered an innovative and, at times, disruptive approach to large-scale change. Tri–sector partnerships are formed when the public, for-profit business, and non-profit sectors join together to achieve mutual goals. These mutual “partnership” goals are becoming a priority as new ecosystems (a scientific term now being used to describe the environment in which organizations operate) are forming. Tri– Sector partnerships are essential to achieving the networks and overall connectedness necessary to realize big performance gains as well as mission achievement, and are therefore a rising and critical factor of successful ecosystems. Nonprofits, the newcomer to the “P3” relationship, are playing an increasingly important role in tri-sector partnerships as organizations are challenged with achieving value in new ways and areas.

Ecosystem value is shifting from an aspirational “north star” to a set of expected goals covering many different elements of wealth and value creation. Shareholders, boards, and other key stakeholders are beginning to demand that organizations deliver broader and larger-scale value as defined by an entire ecosystem. Economic value is certainly still a primary focus for corporate businesses, but social and environmental impacts are also incorporated into this new total value equation.

Today, in 2017, public sector institutions are faced with harnessing technology, personalization of customer services, and many other large–scale challenges in their missions to deliver public goods and services. Shareholders of for-profit businesses are demanding that bottom lines include not only superior financial performance but also measurable contributions in many other areas related to the social and environmental sectors. Nonprofits are expected to scale their mission impact beyond a local, modest contribution to larger-scale impact. Boundaries across these sectors continue to fade and the gap between the magnitude and complexity of challenges and coverage of anyone sector’s solutions creates both the need and desire for partnership across these three sectors through “tri-sector” partnerships.

Public, for-profit, and non–profit sectors have formed tri-sector partnerships to address many large-scale challenges and opportunities. For example, Fortune 50 Corporations have partnered with Non–Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and government institutions to deliver clean water to communities in need thereby bringing social, environmental, and even economic impact through newly established consumer product markets. Recognizing the importance of tri-sector leadership and partnering, Harvard Business Review published an article in 2013 describing “Why the World Needs Tri–Sector Leaders.” The article cites critical tri-sector leadership skills that are required by leaders of today and tomorrow. Not surprisingly, these skills support effective network and partnership formation.

In summary, “partnership” remains alive and well as an important, mainstream concept. In fact, the partnership has evolved over time in much the same way as many other aspects of our society and environment. During the stone age, it was a concept used for survival. Today, it is being used across sectors and ecosystems to harness capability, innovation, networks, infrastructure, and more. Throughout the next decade, tri-sector partnership will without a doubt become a strategy employed by many organizations and other ecosystem stakeholders to address the large–scale challenges and opportunities increasingly faced during the unfolding 21st century.

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