The Indispensable Element of successful partnerships

In recent years, the word ‘partnerships’ has become somewhat of a buzzword. Just like ‘collaboration’, it can easily be used in a variety of contexts: from serious business alliances, to once-off PR campaigns.

The reality is that meaningful partnerships in the social impact space are usually not simple.

Cultivating mutually-beneficial relationships with a positive return can be complex, dynamic, messy and inspiring all at the same time. It requires a very important element: patience.

At Valcare, we’ve witnessed this first-hand with our membership network where we support and strengthen more than 200 nonprofit organisations through various initiatives.

The organisations who show longevity and commit to engage with their fellow network members repeatedly, are the ones who reap the benefits in the end.

More than 70% of the nonprofit organisations in Valcare’s network are recurring members, and more than 89% of the nonprofit organisations that we select to fund, are recurring beneficiaries.

Playing the Long Game

One of the best analogies of successful partnerships is distance running.

A few years ago I decided to try a new sport, and started lacing up my running shoes. Advancing in mileage from a 5km to an ultra-marathon has had many ups and downs. At times, I felt truly alive and energized, and sometimes I felt depleted and discouraged.

Just like partnerships, running long distances requires endurance and discipline, even if you can’t see the finish line. It teaches you to stay consistent when climbing a challenging hill and enjoying the view at the top before descending again.

Strong partnerships are built on unity: running side-by-side, each in our own lanes, but in the same direction, to reach the same shared passion and goal.

You will certainly experience disappointment and frustration along the way, but if you stay dedicated to the cause, you will break through barriers that you didn’t know existed.

One of Valcare’s members, Ma’s vir Wellington NPC, is a great example of an organisation who has been running their partnership marathon with great tenacity since their humble beginnings 14 years ago. From handing out 23 sandwiches to vulnerable children, they have developed into a thriving nonprofit which sustainably supports 171 beneficiaries through various programmes.

It takes dedication and commitment though. Over the last five years, they have leaned into the Valcare membership network benefits, by attending 13 training sessions, 10 networking events and participating in eight social impact collaborations, to name only a few.

The results of their consistent participation have been remarkable. They have seen an increase in stakeholder relationships, which has improved their effectiveness and even helped with cost savings due to resource sharing. They are more strategic than ever, have more streamlined systems and processes in place and feel more encouraged than before.

Their Operations Manager, Salomé Langmann admitted that it hasn’t been easy: “We’ve been faced with hard questions about our effectiveness and had a few stumbling blocks along the way. But by pressing through, we are now better equipped to serve our 171 beneficiaries amidst challenging Covid-19 times.”

Partnerships are two-way streets though, and Ma’s vir Wellington NPC also gave Valcare some honest feedback with regards to our volunteer placement programme that wasn’t working for them. After opening the dialogue to discuss the challenges, Valcare ended up revising the entire programme a year later.

Discipline, Diligence and Dedication

During a race, you don’t get to quit if there is a speed bump in the road or if you knock into your co-runner. Temporary and short-term losses should not be viewed as failures, but as opportunities to practice resilience to become stronger.

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that we need to be agile and innovative to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. During the lockdown in 2020, we saw hundreds of Valcare’s stakeholders take hands to provide nutritional support to the most vulnerable. Over a period of only five months, we collectively managed to enable more than 3.1 million meals together. Behind the scenes though, many of these partnerships were built diligently and patiently over the last 18 years of Valcare’s existence.

Whilst an act of kindness is a quick feelgood sprint; achieving social impact that will leave a legacy, is definitely a marathon.

Hitting the Wall

 There is a common term in distance running called hitting the wall. This usually happens two to three hours into a marathon, when the glycogen in your body gets depleted which leads to fatigue and negativity. It’s basically your entire being screaming: “Quit! Now!”.

But, the only way to get through the wall, is to go through the wall.

If we want to achieve long-term, sustainable social impact in partnership with others, we need to go through the wall together. We need to keep running through the burn, the cramps and the stings. We need to endure, learn and continuously re-adjust our strategy until we find a collective pace that takes us forward.

Yes, it will be uncomfortable, but once you’re through the wall, it will be worth it.

For three years, some of our social investors preferred to allocate a selection of their funding on a non-discretionary basis. Our team would present alternative options with potential greater social impact, but in the end, we would reach an agreement for the purpose of the partnership. By slowly building rapport through a number of funding cycles, we have seen a great shift in trust. Today, more than 96% of our funding is done on a discretionary basis.

In 2019, Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge became the first human to run a marathon in under two hours. A once inconceivable accomplishment. When asked to share his greatest lesson from running, Eliud’s answer was simply: dedication and patience. Characteristics that social impact partnerships simply cannot do without.

Ivan Swartz is the CEO of Valcare, a nonprofit company which ensures that social efforts have an actual impact within the communities of the Cape Winelands. They have two strategic focuses: managing social investments effectively, and strengthening nonprofit organisations through their membership network.