A small social enterprise with a innovative model has achieved credible success at a limited scale. A large multinational corporation proposes a partnership opportunity to radically scale-up some critical component (e.g., IT infrastructure) of the organization. Although there are enormous potential benefits of such a partnership, there are also risks such as mission alignment and cross-organizational synchronization that could make such cooperative effort a disaster. What should a social enterprise do?

Embrace Infant Warmer

Embrace needed Novartis’ sale network to distribute its warmer across India. (Courtesy Embrace)

The issues of social enterprise and multinational corporation partnerships were discussed today the Skoll World Forum panel discussion, “David and Goliath Revisited: Partnerships Between Social Entrepreneurs and Big Business.” The panel was composed of two successful partnerships with “Davids” Gene Falk of mothers2mothers and Jane Chen of Embrace sharing the story of their ongoing relationships with” Goliaths” Hewlett Packard’s Paul Ellingstad and Novartis’ Dorje Mundle, respectively.

All four members of the panel emphasized that such partnerships are much more like a dating relationship than a Biblical battle of giant versus shepherd boy. These relationships are based on finding mutually shared components of each members’ organizational mission. For example, Chen and Mundle described how Embrace’s desire to broadly distribute its new ultra low cost infant incubator overlapped with Novartis’ interest in expanding its healthcare product portfolio in India.

HP’s Ellingstad also emphasized that these partnership are rarely the product of some over-planned scientific algorithm where large corporations are routinely screening for potential partners. Their formation is typically more organic where a partnership develops out of multiple, positive interactions.  In the case of mothers2mothers, Falk first met Ellingstad at the World Economic Forum and then finalized the deal a few months later when both reunited with their teams at the Skoll World Forum.

HP helped mothers2mothers rethink its business process design to streamline the activities of mentor mother work teams. (Courtesy mother2mothers)

However, these partnerships are not without difficulty. Falk noted that it took a significant amount of organizational reflection for his team at mothers2mothers to recognize the overwhelming positive value of a long-term relationship with HP. Ultimately, it was the size of the opportunity that convinced them. “What HP was offering was a dream. We would never have been able to afford what they were providing otherwise,” Falk said.

Chen also recognized that even with effective mission alignment within the partnership team, these incentives may not percolate throughout each organization. For Novartis, its sales system did not offer the right incentives for sales reps to spend the time and effort pitching the Embrace incubator. Ultimately, Embrace and Novartis had to rethink the sales process to make the partnership work.

Near the end of the session, Falk  offered up a “common sense” rule to any partnership being considered by a social enterprise. “Choose your partners carefully. If it makes you uncomfortable…you have to say no.”

Panel Members

Pamela Hartigan, Director, Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford (Moderator)
Jane Chen, Founder and CEO, Embrace
Dorje Mundle, Global Head, Corporate Citizenship Management, Novartis
Paul Ellingstad, Global Health Director, Hewlett-Packard
Gene Falk, Founder and President, mothers2mothers