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Four ways to build a meaningful partnership

22 October 2020 at 7:00 am
Bruce Argyle
How, by working together, can you and your partners create something greater than the sum of your parts? Bruce Argyle shares some things he’s learned along the way and what many businesses are starting to look for in their partnerships.

Bruce Argyle | 22 October 2020 at 7:00 am


Four ways to build a meaningful partnership
22 October 2020 at 7:00 am

How, by working together, can you and your partners create something greater than the sum of your parts? Bruce Argyle shares some things he’s learned along the way and what many businesses are starting to look for in their partnerships.

Partnerships are becoming a more common feature of the not-for-profit (NFP) and philanthropic landscapes. This has largely been driven by scarce funding in the sector, but increasingly, organisations are seeing opportunities beyond a mere transactional attitude to partnerships.

As the saying goes, you’re only as good as the company you keep.

Partnerships present opportunities to collaborate, co-design, educate and draw on resources for promotion, fundraising and volunteering. When executed well, partnerships are mutually beneficial. They expose both partners to new ways of doing things, fresh perspectives and augmented capability, and through common interests allow organisations to achieve their missions. At their least effective, they are little more than an exchange of funds and logos.

As a business with nationwide presence and deep connection to community, Bendigo Bank is often approached for partnership opportunities. Like many businesses, what we look for in a partnership has evolved over time, but it has always been anchored to our strong purpose. Our Community Bank model typifies this, showing the profound connection between business success and community wellbeing, and that for a business to prosper, the community it serves must also prosper.

It is a true partnership between business and community that creates shared value and takes a long-term view. When investing in partnerships, we look to extend this concept of shared value beyond the mere transactional and ask how by working together, we and our partners can create something greater than the sum of our parts.

Here are some things we’ve learned along the way and what many businesses are starting to look for in their partnerships.

Think ‘transformational’ not ‘transactional’

Where in the past a corporate might have been able to “partner” with a not for profit to ride on their coattails to improve their own public perception around any manner of key issues such as discrimination, racism or climate change, this approach to partnering is increasingly being recognised for the cynical approach that under the skin, it is. 

Companies now understand the benefits that flow from true partnerships. A compelling partnership opportunity will present opportunities for two-way learning, adapting, co-creation and impact. Like NFPs, it is rare for companies to be the best at everything they do. There are always opportunities to learn, improve and adapt. Businesses can bring different operational approaches that may have some value for NFPs. Likewise, NFPs’ connection to community and their skill in program delivery can assist with mentoring businesses through the process of being better for community.

For example, when I worked with National Disability Services during the early roll-out of the NDIS, we surveyed service providers about where they thought capability gaps might hinder their organisations’ transition. An overwhelming worry for many NFPs was their ability to adequately market their organisation and services in an NDIS environment. However, marketing is a core capability of for-profit businesses and these insights would be of enormous value to NFPs. Likewise, many businesses are recognising the value that diverse workforces bring and are actively looking at ways to be more inclusive of different abilities. The advice NFPs could provide in this regard is invaluable. This presents a unique opportunity for meaningful partnership where the value exchange not only benefits each partner, but society overall: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

When approaching businesses for partnership opportunities, think beyond transactional opportunities for brand placement. Effective partnerships have the power to transform both partners and the wider community.

Take a long-term view

As with personal relationships, strong partnerships are built over time. They take concerted effort and they are not always easy. For partnerships to be rewarding and transformative, they need to have long-term vision and they need to grow and adapt as the relationship matures.

When partnerships are long-term, partners can move beyond the immediate contractual deliverables and start planning, brainstorming and co-creating. It’s in this space partners can create ideas they could not have conceived of when the relationship started.

Our Community Bank model is a prime example of this. Bendigo Bank’s partnership with communities has grown and matured alongside the development of the communities it supports. It builds a sustainable ecosystem of its own where social and financial dividends are enjoyed by everyone involved. The reality of our Community Bank partnerships, which have seen over $250 million returned to local communities, is that they have resulted in projects that might have otherwise gone unfunded and attracted private and government investment that might have otherwise not occurred. We estimate this has in turn, unlocked real economic and social benefits for these communities to the tune of $1 billion. Had these partnerships been a one-off financial sugar hit, the Community Bank network and the communities it operates in would not be what they are today.

Build trust through transparency and prepare to compromise 

Long-term partnership requires a deep level of trust. Partners need to know their expectations will be met, the investment in time and money will be worth it, and that both partners will be in the relationship for the right reasons and for the long-haul. This can be difficult, but honesty, transparency and communication are key. Up to 80 per cent of business partnerships eventually fail and much of this can be attributed to trust breakdowns and conflict. Maintaining open and personal relationships through regular communication is a common feature of successful partnerships.

Partners should also recognise there may be times where one or more partners need to compromise. Challenges will arise, whether they be funding, staffing, changes in the environment or competing interests. If partners have built a trusting relationship where their goals and ambitions have been clearly articulated, respected and understood, the relationship can actually strengthen as partners collaborate through adversity. Ultimately, you will get more out of your partnership if you make the relationship a priority.

Measure your impact

Finally, it is essential partners measure the impact of their partnership. Businesses and philanthropists will want to understand the impact of their investment, especially because funding may be limited and the number of worthwhile causes ever growing. Critical to measuring impact is clearly defining the objectives of your partnership at the outset. Agreeing on objectives early will aid measurement and allow for the gradual refinement of your strategy and relationship over time. Measuring impact also builds trust between partners. This has previously been an expensive exercise for not for profits, however in 2018 Bendigo Bank partnered with the University of Technology, Sydney to launch the Social Impact Measurement Toolbox. This toolbox empowers NFPs to measure their impact for free, unlocking funding opportunities with government and impact investors.

Cross-sector partnering and collaboration are critical tools for NFPs looking to make a difference in their community. Make sure your organisation gets the most out of it.

Bruce Argyle  |  @ProBonoNews

Bruce Argyle is head of the Not-for-Profit Specialist Team at Bendigo Bank, chair of the Healesville & District Community Bank, and member of the ACNC Sector Users Reference Group.

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