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By Dr. Stuart Reid, Trustee, The Partnering Initiative

As experts in the field of partnership for sustainable development, my colleagues and I spend a lot of our time helping our partners and clients master what we call the ‘art and science of cross-sector partnering’. In a world where partnering now sits at the very heart of international efforts to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, few organisations can afford to ignore the culture, mindset and skills required to build and manage great collaborations. In recent years, however, I’ve noticed a gradual shift of emphasis: the organisations we work with are thinking less about how to partner and more about how to select the right partnering opportunity. In a world of plentiful opportunities, the challenge is to assess those opportunities and select the ones that are going to deliver maximum added value to your work. It’s not just about getting partnership right, but about getting the right partnership.

Why has this concern with assessment and selection risen up the agenda? Firstly, it’s about volume of activity: more projects and programmes are now delivered through multi-stakeholder partnerships; more organisations are ready and equipped to work in partnership; more funding is going to the creation of initiatives and platforms which are characterised by complex collaboration.  Decision-makers need guidance to support their choices on where to make commitments of time and resource. Secondly, it’s about strategy: partnerships need to deliver value in line with organisational strategy. They need to fit with long-term aspirations. They need to establish or strengthen ties with the right allies. Finally, it’s about cost. Partnering is a difficult and time-consuming process which can be resource-hungry: senior managers quite rightly want to get the best possible return on that investment of time, money, reputation and capacity.

Making the best choices on when and where to partner means putting in place a process that allows you to assess the available opportunity against a number of concerns which will be of high importance to your own organisation. Some of these concerns will be quantifiable, such as financial cost or time requirements, but others will be much more subjective such as the likely impact on reputation or the potential access to new networks and markets. An issue which is often underestimated, for example, is the question of whether an organisation has enough people with the appropriate skills to deliver a particular partnership. It’s easy to be beguiled by the promise of an innovative collaboration with high-profile partners but do you have the right people to shape it, manage it and bring home the value that it potentially creates?

As each organisation has its own strategic priorities, internal working culture and resource profile, there can never be a one-size-fits-all process for assessing and selecting partnerships. Any process has to be guided ultimately by the needs, aspirations and capacity of the organisation. Nevertheless, there are certain issues which will commonly be included in any partnership assessment process. We can divide these between issues relating to the the proposed partnership and issues relating to potential partner(s). This distinction may seem pedantic but, in practice, it can be very useful: it’s quite possible to have great potential synergy with an organisation but not yet have the right opportunity to exploit that synergy. Similarly, there may be a partnership opportunity that is strategically important but different partners would be needed to achieve the maximum impact.

Issues to be assessed relating to the partnership include capacity (what skills and resources will we need to deliver effectively in this partnership?); leadership (how will the partnership be led and managed?); culture (can we create an effective partnership culture to deliver collaboratively?); and value (can we clearly define the value that will be generated by this collaboration?). Of these, it is the issue of value that has overriding importance: before any consideration of the practicalities of making a partnership work, we have to understand how it can generate significant net value to the partnering organisations and their beneficiaries.

Issues to be assessed relating to the potential partner(s) can broadly be categorised as alignment (do our organisations have similar values, principles and aims?); resources (can the partner bring complementary resources?); and reputation (will partnering with this organisation impact negatively on our standing with donors, supporters or other partners?). TPI has supported many organisations to explore these issues around specific partnerships and to develop in-house tools and processes to support systematic assessment of future partners and partnerships.

Putting in place a robust and transparent process for assessing the potential of a partnership – and of individual partners – is a sensible commitment for any organisation operating regularly in cross-sector collaboration. Not only should it ensure that you select the right partnership opportunities with the right partners but the process itself will help staff internally to explore the strategic and practical value of the partnership – leading to better understanding and commitment. Finally – though crucially – it makes it easier to decline inappropriate opportunities: an inability to say ‘no’ is often an organisation’s greatest weakness.

We are all familiar with the situation of new partnerships being announced based on one enthusiastic conversation between respective chief executives, regardless of how practicable or effective these partnerships might be in the field. My colleague Darian Stibbe’s coining of the term ‘Davos syndrome’ to describe such partnerships has rapidly gained common currency – evidence that these arrangements are still far too frequent!  Generating real value from partnering means getting the right partnerships with the right partners for the right reasons. A proper assessment and selection process means that this is more likely and, when you really need to, it’s easier to say ‘No’!

This blog was originally published on Devex

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Julia Gilbert Senior Programme Manager and Knowledge Lead

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