About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Building and sustaining partnerships - one marshmallow at a time

One thing you need to know about a good innovation process is: you have to love a workshop.

This week at Nesta we welcomed our 18 Inclusive Economy Partnership grant winners for a workshop centred around partnerships - how to build them, how to nurture them, and how to know when to let them go. Because partnerships (or should we say romance) is what the Inclusive Economy Partnership is all about.

One of the key elements of the Inclusive Economy Partnership is corporate and business organisations supporting our social innovators to scale. Meanwhile, one of the greatest challenges is reconciling an organisation that is usually pretty big and unwieldy with another that is comparatively small and lacking in resource.

Justin Rix, a partner at Grant Thornton, came in to provide the following practical tips for our social innovators on building corporate partnerships:

  • Real partnership needs to be a “transaction of equals” and it must feel that way from the start; both organisations should give something and receive something.
  • Take time at the beginning of a partnership to agree on what each party is bringing to the relationship and make sure this is written down.
  • Corporate organisations won't partner with you just for ‘brand’ reasons; social innovators need to be able to articulate their value just like any other organisation.
  • You need a passionate champion within both organisations who can prioritise the relationship and devote time to ensuring it is creating value for both parties.
  • Do your homework and make sure you are speaking to the right person when partnering with a larger organisation. Don't be afraid to ask who can make decisions, who holds budget responsibility etc - you can be really upfront about asking this.
  • Push back onto the large organisation and ask for resource, especially when it comes to drawing up agreements and other such support. The larger organisation usually has the talent to do this so make sure they take responsibility.

And finally - potentially the hardest call of all - know when to walk away from a partnership. When it’s not working, turn down opportunities to partner with an organisation where the fit isn’t right, no matter how challenging that might be - your time is precious and it's not failure - it’s learning.

The Inclusive Economy Partnership has already ticked the ‘passionate champion’ box through our relationships with our key business partners who joined us during the day to help grantees develop their scaling plans. We were lucky to have representatives from Accenture, Landsec, JP Morgan, Grant Thornton, Nationwide, National Grid and o2 working one-on-one with our grantees to discuss, interrogate and iterate their business plans and growth strategies.

What has this got to do with marshmallows?

A very important part of any partnership process is effective teamwork and being able to quickly build understanding between parties in order to build something sustainable. Through the Marshmallow Challenge (try it at your organisation - it's fun, and effective) our grant winners worked together in teams to use string, tape and 20 strands of spaghetti to build the tallest possible free-standing structure to support a single marshmallow.

They were pretty entrepreneurial and creative: two teams decided to join forces; another team used all sorts of materials already on the table to help reinforce their structure, and the team that was 80% female was the one that emerged victorious (gets you thinking, huh?)

The challenge highlights some important traits for successful partnerships:

  • Ability to listen
  • Need for creativity and collaboration
  • Commitment to making a decision and getting things done.

Give it a try and tell us how it goes.

Have any thoughts on how to build effective partnerships? Comment below or email us at [email protected].


Kate Sutton

Kate Sutton

Kate Sutton

Head of Corporate Social Innovation

Kate was responsible for managing Nesta's Corporate Social Innovation and Inclusive Growth work

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Khyati Modgil

Khyati Modgil

Khyati Modgil

Programme Manager, Government Innovation

Khyati was a Programme Manager in Nesta's Government and Community Innovation team. She is interested in democracy. civic participation and nurturing inclusive organisational cultures.

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