Impact Partnerships - an emerging method to tackle the world's biggest problems

'One small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind,' words immortalised by American Astronaut Neil Armstrong when he took those first famous steps on the moon. ‘No Longer an Island,’ yelled the Guardian headline on both sides of the channel when the famous tunnel that connects the United Kingdom to Europe was opened 25 years ago. ‘Inspiring a generation,’ if you don't remember this catchphrase it was the tagline for the London 2012 Olympics.

All big moments, all massive feats. All big challenges that only a collective endeavor could make happen. Putting a man on the moon, building the channel tunnel and hosting the Olympics are all examples of big projects that took leadership and combined action by Government, business, civil society and citizens.

More recently, the world over, people came together from government, civil society and business to develop the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The world's most compelling ‘to do’ list full of big challenges. What is next to achieve this 'to do' list is for groups of organisations and people to take coordinated action. The 'how' to achieve the SDGs is the hard part.

We are facing challenges tougher than these feats

For us to solve challenges such as inequality, the climate crisis and the changing world of work, we require the assets and action of multiple sectors because these issues are systemic and complex.

We have developed a new method to support visionary cities, councils, corporate organisations or civil society organisations trying to tackle wicked problems.

Over the past 20 years at Nesta, we have developed a unique understanding of the contribution that different sectors can make to tackling social problems and more recently have been developing new partnership methods.

Partnership working isn’t new

There are numerous accounts of cross sector collaborations that have worked to some degree. Employment Zones were an attempt by Government to partner with business and civil society in particular high needs regions in the UK. Education Action Zones were designed to do the same and leverage the resources of the private sector. These struggled as government-led initiatives.

The global education partnership coordinates education funding and the public health national centre for Innovations in the USA have a strong emphasis on partnership working but both struggled to meaningfully engage business.

There are cross-sector partnerships on sustainable textiles between Oxfam and Burberry but more often than not these do not include government in any meaningful way.

There are charity led coalitions which have a policy view and seek to engage business and government in their membership including those on plastics, for example We Mean Business who work on climate change and the End High Cost Credit Alliance with a focus on access to affordable credit. Set up as advocacy coalitions these types of organisations struggle to coordinate action.

There are over 250 crime reduction partnerships that bring together business and police to try and reduce crime in town centres but these partnerships lack transparency and often find it hard to connect with civil society and citizens. There are various business-led partnerships including the many coordinated by Business in the Community but often these groups are criticised as being greenwashing or ethics theatre as government, consumers, employees and the community want more real action rather than words.

We have researched and analysed all these kinds of partnerships and are proposing something new.

The next generation of partnerships

Today Nesta is launching a new method, a new and emerging ‘how’ that we have been refining and perfecting over the last few years - Impact Partnerships. The partnerships are formally orchestrated, they use structured collaboration platforms and active curation and formal processes that connect to policymaking.

This method has been added to our online innovation methods feature and will hopefully be useful for you to use.

The aim is to combine strong relationships between partners; strong backing from system leaders; clear goals; intensive periods of joint work to achieve results; and systems redesign.

The ‘how’ is the hard part

Groups are reasonably good at identifying problems. We hear about problems every day from the media, the public, our employees, friends and families. We are also good at understanding problems by conducting research and living the challenges daily. How to solve the problems, to come up with solutions and to action those solutions - the ‘how’ can be very challenging.

  • How do we work together?
  • How can we leverage each other's unique assets?
  • How can we trust each other to take action and create change?
  • How do we learn from each other and not always have to invent a new solution?

These ‘hows’ are the hard part, where partnerships and coalitions can fall apart or just become ‘talking shops’. Impact Partnerships are an attempt to change that by clearly stating the steps to take to set up these partnership and share the values required to make the action sustainable.

Work with us or Do it Yourself

As Nesta CEO Geoff Mulgan notes in his recent blog and previous paper, over the last 20 years we have worked with individual government, corporates, civil society and social innovators in over 50 countries to understand, innovate and scale effective solutions to wicked problems.

Over the next year, we hope to refine the method more, work out what works better than what we have already, and try and make the method more ‘copyable.’

Please feel free to take some of this thinking and start your own programme or get in touch and we can discuss how we can help.

For more information please contact [email protected], [email protected]

View the method in more detail.


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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