Partnerships - Interview with Victoria Thom

Team member Victoria Thom talks to us about partnering and collaboration as an Accredited Partnership Broker and Trainer with the London based Partnership Brokers Association and her involvement in driving the launch of the Thriving Communities Partnership last year.

7min read

Partnerships - Interview with Victoria Thom

Victoria, can you start by telling us what an Accredited Partnership Broker and Trainer is?

The term partnership broker is not always familiar to people. It emerged in the late 1990s from the concept of a ‘partnership intermediary’ - someone who serves partners by helping them shape their partnership.

The Partnership Brokers Association is the international professional body for those managing and developing collaboration processes. It provides training, services and thought leadership to enable effective partnering and collaboration, for the purpose of a more inclusive and sustainable world.

I did Partnership Broker Training and Accreditation while working at World Vision Australia in 2008, to support my efforts in engaging business as a partner beyond philanthropy. I believe they are an integral part, alongside government and non-government organisations, in solving issues of poverty, climate change, economic development, health and education.  I went on to become a trainer of Partnership Brokers and now use these skills as the foundations of my work. For me, it’s not just about the tools and processes I use, it’s a way of thinking and being.

As an Accredited Partnership Broker and Trainer, I am part of a global network of practitioners collectively working to promote thinking and practice of partnering as a way of transforming complex problems. We acknowledge that partnering is an emergent discipline and are commited to ongoing learning as our partnering practice grows around the world.

Why do you think effective partnering and collaboration are so important?

There is little recent evidence that single-sector or single-entity solutions are enough to address humanity’s greatest challenges – they are too narrow in approach and limited in reach. It is also now widely acknowledged that our globalised world is more unpredictable, complex and inter-connected than in the past. That means we have to approach things in a more adaptive and systemic way that allows us to navigate complexity and uncertainty.

"We need to harness the resources (both non-cash and cash) of all sectors, and we need to work in new ways to solve intractable and complex problems."

We need to harness the resources (both non-cash and cash) of all sectors, and we need to work in new ways to solve intractable and complex problems. Having seen good partnership in action, I realise that the most powerful aspect of working in partnership is the potential for innovation and transformation – and this is what we need if we are ever going to achieve social and environmental sustainability on our planet.

The latest iteration of the global agreement for action is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Seventeen goals adopted by world leaders in 2015, and developed through collaboration between all sectors (business, government, non-government and academia). They are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. That means that no matter where you are, or which sector you represent, there is a role for you in achieving goals such as: no poverty, good health and well-being, reduced inequalities and sustainable cities and communities. SDG 17 – Partnerships for the goals, calls us to consider how we work together to address these complex problems. So, it seems it’s not just me who thinks partnering is important!

When is it appropriate to take a partnering approach?

Partnering is an approach for multi-stakeholder transformation of complex problems, but it is not 'one size fits all'. We also know that no two partnerships are ever the same – it’s about adapting the principles and processes to the context, rather than following rules.

"Partnering is an approach for multi-stakeholder transformation of complex problems, but it is not ‘one size fits all."

Partnering is best suited to issues requiring systems change at a local, national or global level. It is not an approach you would use when there is a known solution or existing approaches. It’s hard work, resource intensive and often (although not always) a long lead time before significant change can be seen. That said, if you can get it right, I believe the additional value you can create through effective partnerships makes it worthwhile… it’s a case of 1+1=3.

Tell us a bit about your involvement in establishing the Thriving Communities Partnership? Was there specific research this was based on? If so, tell us more about it?

I first met Ciara Sterling in 2016 during a consultation I was doing for the Global Compact Network Australia on challenges and opportunities for cross-sector partnering in Australia. She told me about her plans to host the Vulnerability Roundtable and we started working together with Matt Balfe, on how we could bring a partnering approach to the issue of consumer hardship and vulnerability. Emerging from that event, we realized there was a huge appetite from community organisations, businesses and government agencies to work in new ways and take collective action. The opportunity was there for Yarra Valley Water to harness this momentum by piloting a partnering platform.

Yarra Valley Water engaged me to drive strategy, develop the high-level architecture for the TCP (including business model, governance, member charter) and facilitate co-creation and design among potential partners.

Two key pieces of research have been foundational during this work:

  1. The Global Compact Network Australia Issues Paper that emerged from the Global Compact consultation mentioned above gave us a sense of the status quo with regard to organisations’ readiness to partner.
  2. The Partnering Initiative’s 2015 Platforms for Partnership Report

Over the past few years, I have been following the emergence of partnering platforms globally and am excited by the potential for a centralised entity to ‘create a container’ that helps catalyse and support partnerships. The Partnering Initiative  the sister organisation to Partnering Brokers Association, have been driving this and captured their learnings in the report. We drew on this in our development of the TCP architecture, while also connecting with platforms locally, in Asia and Africa to understand how they were progressing.

What advice would you give to organisations seeking to develop their capacity in the areas of collaboration and partnerships?

Look in the mirror first - to build effective partnerships, you must first be a great partner. I find this is often the challenge for organisations wanting to engage in complex collaborations. Everyone gets excited about what’s possible when collaborating with other organisations, but they don’t have a collaborative culture internally. Transformational partnerships mean you draw on many parts of an organisation, so everyone needs to be ready to collaborate.

Invest in capability building – give those leading your partnerships the skills and support to succeed through Partnership Broker Training, mentoring or similar. Ensure they can bring others on the journey by educating the rest of your organisation about the partnering principles and approach. Ideally, you would embed these new ways of working into business as usual, so that you’re recruiting, retaining and developing the right kind of talent and adapting your processes to become a great partnering organisation.

Ensure senior level sponsorship – this is more than buy-in, it’s leadership ownership. Ensuring the Executive and Board understand what it will take to make transformational partnerships happen and give them opportunities to get involved.

Create space to fail and break rules – ensure the right people are given the remit to try new things and are not constrained by internal processes and protocols that stifle innovation and responsiveness. In some cases it can be worth creating a space alongside the organisation where your partnership leads can experiment and are safe to fail, as long as they’re learning as they go.

Be discerning and bold – transformational partnerships take enormous effort, time and resources to build and sustain. In my experience, most medium to large organisations can only manage 1-3 big partnerships at any given time. So, be strategic and selective about what you invest your efforts in…and dream big!

Finally, it would be great to share each other’s learning and experiences of partnering – make sure you reach out to the Thriving Communities Partnership team and others to see how we can all support each other in this important work.


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