Five Golden Rules of Successful Partnerships

By Zahid Torres-Rahman, Founder and CEO, Business Fights Poverty

I was invited recently by the Oxford Hub of the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability (ICRS) to share my thoughts on what it takes to build a successful partnership. All of us who are involved in partnerships know that there are no simple answers and that partnerships take hard work and perseverance.

Fortunately, there is a wealth of experience about what works and what doesn’t, and in my role at Business Fights Poverty I have been fortunate to observe and learn from many individuals and organisations over the past 15 years. Take a look, for example, at the close to 400 articles on our site, our reports that explore case studies, and in particular at our online discussion that brought together 3,000 people.

Below I set out what I believe are the five golden rules of partnership. These are based on a composite of many examples, drawing of the particular strengths I have observed across a variety of partnerships. This is a journey and we continue to learn. Let me know if you have any other golden rules you would add to the list, or if you know of any other good examples.

Rule 1: Be clear on why

Above all, be clear about why you are partnering. This might sound obvious, but comes up time and again when people are reflecting on why partnerships work. Good partnerships start with a common goal that partners feel passionate about. A clear “why” will drive the focus and continued commitment and energy that you need.

Focus on your core

In setting this goal, it is important to “connect at your core”. In the context of business partnerships, this means connecting with the core of a business – its products and services, and how it does business – rather than around how it gives money away through philanthropic programmes. This opens up the opportunity to move from a traditional, transactional donor-recipient relationship to one that is long-term, generates mutual value and has the potential to be truly transformational.

Build a Shared Understanding

The strongest partnerships are ones where all sides come together to understand and tackle a shared challenge. The starting point is deepening the collective understanding of the issue, the wider socio-economic context and the root causes of the challenge that the partnership aims to address. The strength in any partnership comes from the diversity in perspectives – from businesses operating in the local markets, to NGOs working with local communities, to governments understanding the wider drivers and priorities.

Frame a clear question

In my experience, there is nothing more powerful and empowering than a question. Translating a challenge into a question immediately opens up the conversation and invites people to share their collective wisdom. A good question is both focused and actionable, while also being compelling and engaging for the partners and their stakeholders.

EXAMPLE – Cargill and Care: Over 60 years, this partnership evolved from a transactional, philanthropic partnership – funding aid packages to families in poverty – to one that is potentially transformational for rural cocoa producers in West Africa. The partners are drawing on their respective strengths to design interventions that build the capacity of smallholder farmers, grow their access to formal private-sector supply chains, and improve food security and nutrition in their communities. The partnership is underpinned by CARE’s community understanding and Cargill’s knowledge of agricultural supply chains and markets.

Rule 2: Be clear on who

Being clear on why you are partnering helps decide who and, importantly, who not to include. Some of the best-known partnerships are dreamt up by two CEOs in the margins of a conference, but to endure they must involve many others.

Choose partners who care

At an organisational level, it is key to find a partner who cares, and who will approach the partnership with the willingness to engage constructively and energetically. Avoid partners who are half-hearted and instead focus on those who are all in.

Understand complementary skills

At the ICRS event, I shared a panel with Rachael Clay, who emphasised the need to recognise and manage the imbalance of power that exists in many partnerships. One important action is acknowledging, appreciating and articulating explicitly the non-financial benefits that all partners can bring – whether that is complementary skills, knowledge or networks. Good partnerships are built on mutual respect.

Engage the right people

Within the organisation, it is critical to engage the right people, whether that is senior-level champions and decision-makers, or people within business units and local geographies who will be critical to delivery. Embedding the partnerships across the participating organisations is critical for buy-in and long-term sustainability. This means that all those involved must have or actively deepen their partnering skills.

EXAMPLE – Barclays and GSK: This partnership focuses on unblocking financial barriers and enhancing government efforts to help increase access to affordable healthcare. It did this by bringing together the skills and expertise of a bank and healthcare company to test new models that would increase access to healthcare and improve economic livelihoods in Africa. Focusing on Zambia, the partnership worked with CARE International UK to set up Live Well, a social enterprise that trains and supports a network of Community Health Entrepreneurs to promote healthcare and sell health products into underserved communities.

Rule 3: Be clear on what

It is right that partnerships are guided by an ambitious “why”, but to maintain pace and momentum, everyone must be focused on delivering something tangible.

Be tangible

Tangible deliverables help foster a task-focused team across the partnering organisations, and in that way can be a powerful vehicle for building trust. This needs to be underpinned by jointly-developed monitoring and evaluation frameworks to measure and report on success.

Be flexible

Alongside a clear focus there must be flexibility around how the partnership will deliver on its desired outcomes. Partnership is a process that must adapt and evolve in response to new information or unexpected hurdles.

Celebrate results

Whenever a partnership achieves a successful milestone, it is important for partners to take the time to celebrate them. More tricky, but perhaps even more important, partners must embrace failure and learn from things that don’t go well.

EXAMPLE – GSK and Save the Children Fund: Coming together around a vision to help save the lives of 1 million children, the partnership included specific scientific, programmatic and advocacy elements guided by a jointly-developed partnership results framework up to 2022. Their combined insights and expertise led to the reformulation of chlorhexidine, an antiseptic used in a GSK mouthwash, into a gel to prevent umbilical cord infections that can lead to potentially life-threatening neonatal sepsis. Together they developed packaging and marketing to reach mothers and carers in low literacy settings.

Rule 4: Be clear on when

Some of the most impressive partnerships are based on long-term commitments, needed for building trust-based relationships. What is as important, and equally as rare, is setting ambitious, shorter-term, tangible timeframes for delivery – needed to maintain momentum, prove the value of the partnership and deepen commitment.

Make a long-term commitment

A long-term relationship gives the space that partnerships need to grow and evolve. There are many examples of partnerships deepening or becoming more ambitious over time. While it is important to spend time in framing the partnership, it is important not to overdesign the partnership by spending months upfront on the granular detail of governance structures and Gantt charts.

Set clear target dates

I always find it helpful to set a date that is less than 12 months – or what I think of as “this side of the horizon”. It needs to be a date that people can “see” in order to maintain focus and momentum. In my view, the best way to build trust is through action.

Focus on bite-sized chunks

Squaring the circle of long-term goals with short-term targets, means breaking down the challenge into bite-sized pieces. As with anything in life, this also helps avoid mental overload when faced with a massive goal. Delivery creates the proof-points to all partners and their internal stakeholders that the partnership is worth pursuing.

EXAMPLE – Burberry and Oxfam: The 5-year nature of this partnership, which aims to develop a more inclusive and sustainable cashmere industry and help herders enhance their livelihoods, has provided the space for relationships to build and for the work to evolve. At the same time, the partnership has identified concrete areas to focus on, including training for goat herders, enhanced veterinary services, the development of community-owned collective action organisations and engagement on the development of a national cashmere policy framework. 

Rule 5: Be clear on how

Partnerships at their core are about human beings working together. In recent years, I have become fascinated by the psychology of why and how people collaborate. Putting the humanity back into partnerships is possibly the most important thing we can do to enhance their effectiveness.

Be authentic

It is important that people in the partnerships show up as themselves, not as their egos or job titles. Too rarely do partnerships invest the time in building the human connections and relationships between people across the partnering organisations. Critical too is frequent, open and honest communication based on mutual respect and trust, and with the objective of mutual learning and continuous improvement.


Partnerships must be about co-creating solutions to shared challenges. That starts with building a shared understanding of the issue and co-designing the partnership, but it also extends into how people solve problems together along the way, drawing on their respective networks and collective intelligence.

Be rapid and agile

My personal bugbear is that too often the response to an issue is to create yet another formal, highly-engineered partnership with heavy governance, marble offices, and formal institutionalised structures. More often, a flexible and agile collaboration would be better: leaving space for innovation and evolution.

EXAMPLE – Anglo American and International Alert: Initially focusing on Anglo American’s returns under the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, the partnerships evolved and broadened as the relationship deepened. International Alert helped deliver a gap analysis and training on the ground, and has collaborated on joint advocacy. According to perspectives shared in our recent online discussion, fundamental to this has been a practical approach, a flexible structure, openness, and trust.

Purposeful Collaboration

When all five elements are in place – a clear whywhowhatwhen and how – I call this “purposeful collaboration”. When collaboration is purposeful, it is a powerful way to unlock new insights and deepen relationships. Indeed I firmly believe that it is only by being purposeful that we can unlock the true potential of partnerships. Partnerships are tough but at the same time a powerful way to rebuild trust and tackle the complex issues that face people and planet.

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