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How do impact partnerships work?

There is a growing consensus that to tackle the most pressing problems the world is facing, such as inequality and the changing world of work, we need to harness the collective resources, skills and power from multiple sectors. Impact partnerships unlock a significant and untapped pool of resources for social good, by bringing together the commitment, assets and expertise from across different sectors to tackle tough challenges more effectively.

Impact partnerships typically bring together:

  • Large corporates - with huge resources, highly motivated staff and often global reach. Big firms can be well placed to come up with solutions, especially on issues like mental health where there is both a strong motive for them to improve employee engagement and wellbeing and the opportunity that comes from daily interaction.
  • Government - with convening power and authority to incentivise participation with funding, policy and regulation.
  • Civil society - with the expertise and depth of knowledge on entrenched social issues and funding resources to support the partnership.
  • Social innovators and citizens - with ideas, drive and expertise on the issues being addressed.

Although there is often a desire from cross-sector parties to work together, it is not always easy to determine how a collaboration might work in practice. Through a structured process, impact partnerships can help define the key objectives and challenges, identify each parties’ strengths and contributions, and determine the best approach to tackle the problem at hand.

Impact partnerships can be particularly helpful in the following situations:

  • To tackle entrenched social problems that aren’t getting fixed, such as youth unemployment, homelessness and financial exclusion.
  • Where existing solutions are not currently fulfilling their potential, whether due to a lack of funding, a lack of expertise or a competition for resources.
  • Where there are disparate and conflicting efforts due to dilution of funding, talent not working, inefficient duplication or unhealthy competition.
  • Where there is a high level of uncertainty and organisations are struggling to act alone due to lack of clarity of the problem or where to act, or low risk appetite and not wanting to invest in the wrong area.

Creating and brokering effective impact partnerships typically involves four key stages:

1. Discovery and design - This includes rapidly researching the problem to be tackled, and defining the key challenges. This involves key stakeholders from across sectors through workshops and research, and mapping the current system. What is the problem that really needs solving? Where do existing solutions fall short? What funding or resources might be needed? What are the assets that each organisation can bring to the table? In this stage there is a formal orchestration of evidence so everyone has a shared understanding of ‘what works’.

2. Engage and establish - This stage involves curating the right ecosystem around the problem, including business, government, civil society, social innovators and citizens. This could include putting out an open call for innovators looking for support to address the issue in question, or assembling a ‘leadership group’ of individuals from across the different sectors. At this stage clear outcomes are adopted, a process of measurement and taking stock is developed and a clear process for learning is generated. This step also includes creating the right environment, language and culture for change where all parties:

  • agree on shared rules of engagement
  • identify and activate high-potential, multi-sector partnerships within the ecosystem, with the potential to scale
  • set clear objectives for each partnership and create a plan for scaling each project

3. Deliver and implement - This is a time-bound period where projects are executed. The partners remain engaged through structured collaboration platforms both online and offline through working groups. Throughout this process when activities are not working or need to iterate, the group supports each other to do that.

4. Amplify and learn - This stage involves demonstrating and amplifying the best projects and solutions with a direct link to policy making. Lessons learnt are shared in an open way. Events and activities highlight the success and learning in order to bring new people into future partnerships.

Impact partnerships can lead to:

  • New or better solutions to a problem having an impact at scale.
  • Measurable, defined and replicable solutions to large scale problems.
  • Government working more effectively with civil society, business and citizens to address social and environmental problems.

Impact partnerships, as distinct from standard partnerships, generally share these characteristics:

  • Tackling a big social challenge that could not be solved by the work of one sector or organisation alone.
  • Multi-sector collaboration including government, civil society and business.
  • Focused on a clear and measurable goals.
  • An action-focused rather than research-focused agenda.
  • Ideally will include social innovators or other ‘unusual suspects’.
  • Time-bound relationships that will disband when the goal has been achieved.
  • Clear measures of success, both quantitative and qualitative, with a strong focus on learning, iteration and reflective practice.
  • Includes activities that are innovative or experimental for one or more parties (campaigns, accelerators, prototyping, impact funds, etc).

Nesta’s work developing the impact partnerships method

Nesta’s belief in partnerships to tackle tough social challenges is longstanding, and one of the cornerstones of our work. (It’s one of our core values: we never work alone). We have been writing about creating effective partnerships for several years, with blogs and reports looking at the role of partnerships in healthcare, startups, inclusive growth and financial inclusion - and a practical toolkit on how to get your partnership off to a good start.

Impact partnerships specifically is one of the newer innovation methods we are exploring, developing and testing. We set out some of initial thinking in 2013 with a paper on systems change and for several years we have been developing our 100 day method which includes partnership across sectors in our health lab in partnership with the rapid results institute.

Since 2014, we have been working with the European Commission to help deliver the Startup Europe Partnership (SEP) programme (and more recently, SEP 2.0), a programme designed to support startups to scale across Europe by collaborating with larger corporates which has also fed into our knowledge of partnerships and what works.

In November 2017 we launched the Flying High Challenge. Run by the Challenge Prize Centre at Nesta, in partnership with Innovate UK, Flying High is the first programme of its kind to convene city leaders, regulators, public services, businesses and industry around shaping the future of drones in UK cities, to make sure new drone systems place citizens’ needs first.

Most recently, we have co-designed the Inclusive Economy Partnership (IEP) along with the UK government. The IEP is bringing together three different parties: business, civil society and government, to unlock new ideas to tackle social problems and support existing solutions to scale. Eighteen projects are being developed through the IEP, each one harnessing the resources and expertise of different sectors to significantly increase their impact and reach. One hundred partnerships have been confirmed between our 18 social innovators and various other organisations and parties.

Through these projects we are delivering our innovation expertise in a collaborative, high-intensity, structured but agile fashion. Each programme has the championship and support of government and business, and captures the hearts and minds of social innovators and civil society.

Case studies

Inclusive Economy Partnership (IEP)

Nesta has worked with the UK Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) to develop the Inclusive Economy Partnership (IEP). This unique partnership between business, civil society and government is designed to take individual and collective action towards three big societal challenges. These are: financial inclusion and capability; transitions to work for young people, and mental health support in the workplace.

We’re working with 18 social innovators (selected via an open call) to develop projects across our three challenge areas. Nesta developed a six-month partnership accelerator - a bold new approach to accelerating social innovation - to support these new, but proven, social innovators to scale, which turbo-charged the partnership activity and helped leverage the unique assets, resources and power of each party.

Throughout the programme Nesta engaged with 150 corporate partners, who have offered varying levels of support. We made 230 introductions between the 18 social innovators and various delivery partners, from which 100 confirmed partnerships have been established – far exceeding the original programme target of nine partnerships.

Read our report to find out more about the impact and results of the programme so far.

Flying High

Drone technology is advancing rapidly. UK cities now have a unique opportunity to shape this disruptive technology, to maximise the economic and social benefits it could bring while ensuring safety.

Run by Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre, in partnership with Innovate UK, our Flying High programme is a collaborative effort to position the UK as a global leader in shaping drone systems that place people’s needs first. The programme has brought together city leaders, technologists, researchers, regulators, government, public services, businesses and citizens to shape the future of urban drone use in the UK.

The first phase comprised a nine-month research and engagement process, working with five city regions across the UK (Bradford, London, Preston, Southampton and the West Midlands - selected following an open call for ideas), to develop visions for the future of drones and assess technical feasibility, and economic and social impact of urban drone applications. The outputs of this phase, which also included mapping the UK drone industry, are summarised in the Flying High report.

The next stage of the programme will involve designing a series of innovation challenges and developing test beds to pioneer safe, sustainable drone systems that deliver the benefits for citizens outlined in phase one. The challenge objectives include: shaping city plans on the future of drones; identifying and addressing key complexities around technology, infrastructure, law, safety and privacy; and creating technical and economic plans that maximise market opportunity.

Further resources