Partnering skills are essential to scaling social finance in Canada

Editor’s note: this blog originally appeared on on March 28, 2013. It has been cross-posted with permission.

Moving the field of impact investing forward requires governments, businesses, social entrepreneurs and foundations to work together. This need for collaboration is precisely why social finance has the potential to be so transformative. And yet, this cross-sector work is also what makes the field a tricky one. In many ways, a fragmented and siloed reality persists.

My friends in the world of social finance have told me that specific challenges to collaborations include:

  • Managing the varied expectations that collaborators bring to the table about the work, themselves and other partners
  • Understanding the philosophies, approaches, and languages that are commonly used in one sector but may be unfamiliar in another
  • Ensuring transparency around organizational goals, motivations and values between collaborators

The good news is that these are common challenges faced by all collaborations that span sector boundaries.

The bad news? Unless we develop the capacity to overcome them, these challenges will make our work slow and frustrating, and will ultimately reduce our ability to create real value. So what should we do?

We need to get skilled in the art of brokering partnerships.

What is partnership brokering? Partnership brokering is the “skilled management of the partnering process”. This unique approach to managing multi-sector collaborations was developed by the Partnership Brokers Association in the UK. Their vision has been to create, “a more equitable and sustainable world by building capacity for innovation, efficiency and excellence in cross-sector collaboration”.

Since 2003, they have worked towards achieving this vision through the development and delivery of capacity building training and professional development for people who find themselves in the often undefined and murky role of coordinating and managing collaborations.

These roles have many names. I have recently learned about tri-sector leaders and boundary spanners, and I’ve also heard of weavers and change managers. What they all have in common is a requirement to make sense of the different realities, needs, expectations and motivations of partners in order to develop collaborations that deliver value and impact.

That means “brokers” often need to influence, negotiate, build consensus, and acknowledge and manage conflict while at the same time representing their own organization’s objectives at the partnering table. Adding to this complexity is the fact that brokers are often operating in situations where power dynamics are unclear and/or unbalanced. Sound familiar?

If it does, then you may benefit from learning how to use the partnering process framework and a set of partnering tools to bring greater success to your work. As Greg Butler, Senior Director of Education Partnerships at Microsoft explains in Good for Business? An enquiry into the impact of Microsoft’s investment in partnership brokers training:

“Partnerships come in all shapes and sizes. In the private sector, many so-called ‘development partnerships’ are essentially transactional and tactical involving philanthropy on the one hand or service-type contractual arrangements on the other.

However, we came to realise in Microsoft that a true partnership approach is something very different. A better managed and understood partnering process can lead to genuine win-win collaboration—where the conversation moves from ‘here’s some money, this is what we expect you to deliver’ to ‘this is the problem/challenge, how can we solve it together?’

A few years ago, Microsoft’s desire to move away from a traditional “vendor-client” relationship to that of a “true” partner led them to the Partnership Brokers Association Level 1 course which focuses on developing this initial understanding of the partnering process and works to develop the skills needed to move through this process effectively. A recent examination of the effects of this training on Microsoft’s team of 94 brokers discovered the following benefits:

  1. An increased ability to conduct effective and productive conversations, leading to an increase in efficiencies in the process and increased overall value from the relationship
  2. An increased ability to make faster assessments of a partnership’s viability through effective conversations to understand each potential partners motivations
  3. Brokers were better equipped and more confident to approach others as agents of change, creating linkages, opening doors and suggesting new ways of working
  4. An increased ability and confidence to acknowledge and work with complexity rather than ignoring it

In addition to these benefits, many on Microsoft’s team were able to describe how changing their approach to developing partnerships (as a result of what they had learned in the training) had increased the success of the collaborations they worked on and led to a greater number of beneficiaries.


If this type of training piques your interest, learn more about being a broker and the Level 1 training on the Partnership Brokers Association website.

The next training is coming up in Toronto on April 8th, courtesy Social Innovation Generation, and there are only a few spots remaining,  so sign up!

I took my Level 1 training last year in Wales and am now undertaking my Level 2 accreditation. If you’d like to ask about my experiences as a broker or my thoughts on the Level 1 training, you can reach me at ahamilton[at]marsdd[dot]com

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