A TPI Think Piece by Anna Hirsch-Holland, Senior Programme Manager, The Partnering Initiative.
In March 2020, as the world struggled to comprehend and contain the rapidly spreading Novel Coronavirus disease (COVID-19), The Partnering Initiative was not alone in probing its own role in the unfolding crisis and the new world it would, or could, shape. We asked ourselves: how will partnerships respond, or even survive, under such pressure? But with our knowledge of the potential for partnerships to deal with complex, even ‘wicked’, problems – we felt certain that an all-of-society, global approach would be key to the world’s response to and recovery from COVID-19, and that TPI’s support to cross-sectoral partnership would therefore be more needed than ever.
This led us, in the first few months of the crisis,[i] to seek to understand more about how partnerships were surviving, adapting, and forming in the context of COVID-19. Reaching out to our networks, we met (virtually, of course) with more than 25 TPI Associates, who shared observations from their diverse locations and sectors; we held two roundtables attended by 13 representatives from organisations involved in active partnerships;[ii] and we conducted an online survey completed by 86 respondents from around the globe and representing all sectors of society.[iii]
In this study, we were pleasantly surprised to learn about the incredible resilience of many partnerships in the face of crisis; we were also excited to discover an abundance of new partnerships rapidly forming, and bringing together actors that would never normally work together. As an institutionally optimistic organisation, we could not help but see the positives in an otherwise grim situation: namely, the potential for this crisis to spur on a new era of collaborative, all-of-society approaches for a more resilient, sustainable future. While we recognise that in some cases the main driver for working in COVID-19 partnerships would have been to increase profits – perhaps even to the detriment of the public good – we have chosen to highlight and celebrate the positive examples of collaboration from which we can learn for the future. As a new year starts in the face of perhaps even more challenges than the last, we share with you our lessons, and outstanding questions, about the present and future of partnering.
The seven lessons featured in this TPI Think Piece:
- Despite challenges, existing partnerships were highly resilient in the face of the COVID-19 crisis
- A common, urgent crisis can make it quicker and easier to develop new partnerships
- A common crisis motivates a stronger business response
- A complex, common crisis makes a stronger case for more and broader partnerships
- The importance of pre-existing networks and relationships
- The importance of local action, and creating the space for local partners and partnership
- The importance of developing capacity in remote partnering through digital technology
Lesson 1: Despite challenges, existing partnerships were highly resilient in the face of the COVID-19 crisis
Even if 92% of our survey respondents felt that their existing partnerships faced some or many challenges relating to COVID-19, we were surprised to see that most also talked positively about how well their partnerships were coping under the strain – at least during that moment in the crisis (around three months in).
Challenges included operational and funding constraints, such as lack of access to communities or increased competition for funding and high expectations from partners. In most cases, survey respondents were able to point to a range of mitigating strategies including collaborative revision of workplans and budgets, and increased flexibility for partners in delivery of activities and reporting (particularly from donor partners). Moreover, travel bans and the shift to work-from-home was seen not purely as a challenge (of which, more below) but also as an enabler of ongoing partnership, since people became more readily available and could connect on a more frequent, informal basis.
“On the positive side: partnership participants were highly available for consultations as they were all working from home. In that sense there was more engagement and quicker response to challenges or propositions.”
[Representative of a global public-private platform to accelerate the circular economy]
However, the common and overarching theme was the ‘binding’ power of a shared crisis – because everyone is affected, and it is a shared experience, this “brings more compassion and empathy into the partnering process,”[iv] and results in “incredible willingness to respond with a rapid can-do attitude”[v] among partners, and a more nuanced shared understanding of challenges and the broader social implications. This is quite distinct from a crisis that only affects one partner/location – e.g., a natural disaster – where the other partners may simply not be able to comprehend the realities of those affected.
Having said that, some survey respondents and roundtable participants felt that there was a need to develop contingency plans for strengthening or protecting partnerships during a crisis, and that flexibility and creativity needed to be factored into the very design of the partnership.
Reflection for the future: How can partnerships prepare themselves for the potential impact of a shock or crisis? How might traditional partnering tools and processes – e.g., partnering agreements and principles, decision making protocols, governance structures, and resource sharing agreements – be developed or altered to make partnerships even more flexible and thereby resilient?
Lesson 2: A common, urgent crisis can make it quicker and easier to develop new partnerships
In the early onset of the COVID crisis, there was a perception among partnership practitioners that a wealth of new partnerships and collaborations were springing up in response,[vi] and this was confirmed by results of our survey – whereby 37% of survey respondents reported to have established new partnerships prompted by COVID-19.
While some of these were explicitly designed to be short-term partnerships for immediate response, the majority (83%) were expected or even designed to continue ‘beyond immediate COVID response.’ In those cases, the partnerships seemed to be addressing not only the immediate crisis, but also more complex, ongoing, and underlying issues – illustrating the ‘catalysing’ effect of the crisis in encouraging longer-term collaborative approaches. The examples are plentiful, including NGOs working with private sector media and tech companies to deliver COVID-related communications and education, to systematic collaboration between NGOs, hospitals, and private sector.
Of those who reported to have been involved in new partnerships as a result of COVID, almost 80% said these were quicker to get off the ground compared to previous partnerships, citing the following key reasons:
- Shared sense of urgency gives a ‘laser focus’ and offers the “additional ‘grease and glue’ to finding the opportunity sets and shared agendas”[vii]
- Senior leadership buy-in (“leaders can all get behind the same message”[viii]) making it easier to obtain internal decisions or approvals
- Willingness to skip, streamline, or postpone internal procedural steps such as due diligence processes
- Easier to build trust or trust seen as less important due to overwhelming need (particularly in the case of intentionally short-term partnerships)[ix]
All these reasons link back once again to the over-arching theme of the common crisis and – in particular – the fact that resource-holding powerful sections of society were also affected by the crisis:
“This crisis is different because it poses an existential threat to all of us – and power imbalance is such that it’s only when the powerful feel threatened that they get on board”
[Participant in one of TPI’s roundtables]
At the same time, any crisis can also provide opportunities, and where ‘self-interested’ motivations for partnership (e.g., profit) align with the common good, there is an even stronger impetus to partner. In the case of COVID-19, we can see this in the many public-private partnerships that sprung-up, with private companies innovating for COVID-related solutions from which they would also stand to gain in terms of profit and repute.[x]
Reflection for the future: A common ‘crisis’ can be a valuable catalyst for partnerships that can become longer term and transformational, but how can we replicate this sense of urgency to generate a more collaborative, dynamic approach to other impending global catastrophes – in particular, the global environmental crisis? Though this, and other ongoing global challenges, present a similarly grave threat to people and planet, they are less ‘felt’ by crucial stakeholders, making it more difficult to galvanise the same sense of crisis and threat, and thus the all-of-society collaborative response that is needed. Further, how can we build on the experiences of more rapid partnering during COVID-19 to create new, speedier, partnership development protocols?
COVID-19 catalysed wider engagement of different sectors with each other, as organisations scrambled to find partners that could help them achieve goals they could not achieve alone; this is leading to a stronger recognition of the need for a whole-of-society, multisectoral approach to dealing with complex global challenges.
Lesson 3: A common crisis motivates a stronger business response
In particular, the private sector became a critical actor in the response. In part this was due to a recognition on the part of business leaders that the crisis presented both a threat to their own businesses continuity as well as an opportunity to build their brand, reputation, and of course their profit (see the last point under Lesson 2). On the other hand, these motivations were compounded by the very real emotional impact of the crisis on all business leaders and staff, which in some cases seemed to be a driver for their contribution and desire to ‘make a difference’ – at least in the initial phases of the crisis.
Reflection for the future: To what extent has the COVID crisis led to a ‘fundamental’ shift in how business sees its role in contributing to the ‘common good’? Some business consultants and leaders are optimistic, for example, a business leader working with TPI commented that, “people I work with [in the business sector] are desperate to contribute but don’t know the process to do so”. As such, how can business be encouraged and supported to play this broader societal role through a partnership approach?
Lesson 4: A complex, common crisis makes a stronger case for more and broader partnerships
Many TPI Associates, survey respondents and roundtable participants reflected that this crisis has brought to the fore the importance of multi-sectoral, multi-stakeholder partnerships, and felt that it would make it easier for them to make the case within their organisations for partnering in the future.
“I think most organizations will be more amenable to the idea of partnering with very different types of companies because they have seen the value that can be created from the interaction of diverse companies.”
[TPI Associate working on Public Private Partnerships for development]
The crisis prompted organisations to engage new sectors and stakeholders with which they had not previously considered partnering. For example, one survey respondent from the business sector cited pivoting to partner with government in order to build rural community resilience, while a respondent from an international nongovernmental organisation (INGO) noted that “while traditionally our partnerships focused on organisations more similar to ourselves with compatible mandates and capacities, we are now actively seeking new partnerships with actors specialised in sectors that [our NGO] does not work in.”[xi] This also highlights the default tendency in ‘peace times’ for organisations and entities to, by default, partner with those similar to themselves and thereby potentially duplicate knowledge and practice rather than innovate for new solutions through cross-sectoral collaboration.
Reflection for the future: How are the new COVID-inspired partnerships between non-traditional partners playing out? What are the success (and failure) factors for diverse types of organisations to be able to work together in the long-term, and how can such partnerships be further encouraged or incentivised even in ‘peace time’?
Lesson 5: The importance of pre-existing networks and relationships
Although the COVID-19 crisis saw an upsurge in new partnerships, many of those were formed off the back of pre-existing relationships and networks – i.e., where some degree of trust was already forged. This was mentioned by numerous survey respondents, for example: “…in some specific areas, [the crisis] has highlighted that we need to be more connected with other partners / actors in readiness to be able to link and organise rapidly where the need arises.”[xii]
Likewise, the pre-existing partnerships that were most able to pivot and respond to COVID-19 were those built on already strong relationships:
“The core message is flexibility and trust. Building strong relationships based on trust and recognising that things change on the ground has made conversations about redesigning programming in the light of the crisis easy”
[Survey Respondent from a grant-making corporate foundation]
Reflection for the future: How can we create those pre-existing networks and relationships that do not constitute full partnership, but are ready to develop when needed? In particular, how can we create an environment that makes it easy for the private sector to partner with non-profit/community/public sector?
Lesson 6: The importance of local action, and creating the space for local partners and partnership
Although there are examples of large, global partnerships forming or pivoting in response to COVID-19, respondents to our survey were most enthusiastic about the partnerships that proliferated at local level, indicating how important the local partnering environment is for a flexible, speedy response to crises.
In some cases, this ‘localisation’ effect (something that has been on the global humanitarian and development agenda for years, with arguably limited success) was forced by the departure of expatriate staff – leading to a reliance on local staff for implementation, monitoring, and coordination. INGO survey respondents noted that the availability of local partners was critical for ongoing delivery of aid to the neediest (“we are depending on the local partners for everything”[xiii]) whereby local partners have been able to leverage their networks to help with community support. At the same time, local actors were not without challenges in terms of their capacity and ability to access communities and there was sometimes a mismatch between expectations of these actors by their partners, and what they could actually achieve.
This recognition by INGOs about the importance of local partners appears to be leading to a strategic shift in approach – towards relying more on local partners.
“We are largely operational directly in many of the countries that we operate in, but will increasingly be seeing localised partners operating on our behalf. We need to understand the risks and opportunities exposed by such an action and have measures in place which will allow us to manage this relationship effectively and efficiently”
[Representative of a humanitarian INGO]
At the same time, partnership practitioners are recognising that large-scale global partnerships driven by centralised secretariats are much less nimble than locally-based partnerships, and that there needs to be a stronger local focus from which “partnerships mushroom upwards”.[xiv]
“COVID has shone a massive light on where the gap is, and it’s at the local level. We don’t need any more focus on global level partnerships”
[Roundtable respond from a global association of private sector companies]
Some in the humanitarian and development sector – such as the leadership teams of Start Network Hubs[xv] in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala, India, Pakistan and Pacific region – have even gone so far as to say that “localisation is inevitable now”.[xvi] However, with this they raise important questions of motivation: “Is this about tactical and operational expediency and the convenient transfer of risk? Or is this a step-change moment for pursuing the spirit of partnership, subsidiarity and complementarity enshrined in recent global accords?”[xvii]
Reflection: How can we build partnership models and guidance that truly promote and empower local actors to take ownership over development solutions? How can the ‘risks’ of working with and through local partners be managed appropriately?
Lesson 7: The importance of developing capacity in remote partnering through digital technology
Nearly half of respondents to the survey said COVID has changed how they will partner in the future, and a further 30% said it would maybe change. One of the most mentioned changes[xviii] was around digital, remote partnering. Even if many survey respondents also recognised the unique value of in-person meetings and connections, they also agreed that partnerships built remotely could be a game changer in terms of increasing inclusivity in the collaborators around the table (e.g. greater quantity and diversity of people can attend a virtual workshop than an in-person conference), while also decreasing financial and environmental costs (“we’ll absolutely think twice before we jump on the plane to support a SME in a developing country”). Survey respondents recognised that this shift to digital is not straightforward, and requires an improved understanding of how to use technology appropriately, and the implications thereof.
“Partnerships have to be built and managed using digital technologies – we need to better understand how partnerships function in a purely digital context (e.g. how does it affect problem solving or content development?). We also need to understand better how people respond to digital convening on a continuous basis (in terms of human interaction, building relationships, developing empathy between partners, span of attention)”
[Survey respondent from a public-private platform promoting the circular economy]
Many survey respondents recognised not just the opportunities but also the threats posed by partnerships built remotely and relying on digital interactions.
First, there is the issue of digital availability and equality, and the risk of the ‘digital divide’. As expressed by a representative from a disability-focussed INGO during our roundtable, with digital collaboration “you rely on people you can access rapidly, which can skew who is involved – what about those with limited bandwidth, or disabilities?” As well as physical ability and digital ‘literacy’ limiting involvement, the high costs of internet in some areas can exclude people from collaborating through digital tools that may require large bandwidth. It is thereby something that those working in partnership need to be keenly aware of, and where necessary additional support (e.g. provision of additional airtime, data, or electronic devices) may be critical to “maintain open communication with partners and project participants.”[xix]
Second, many noted that shifting all interactions (“events, meetings, check-ins, community gatherings”[xx]) to the digital space leads to fatigue and can be overwhelming. Moreover, discussions can become very content driven: “Most of our partnerships are based on human interaction…We miss the human interaction, listening to body language”[xxi]. This underlines the need to be intentional about interactions, and to “build out new norms and expectations around communication (frequency, platform, etc)”[xxii]
Reflection: It is evident that building increased understanding and capacity in remote partnering through digital technologies is essential to enable partnerships to develop, survive, and flourish. Several survey respondents and roundtable participants requested support in this regard.
We have learnt a lot during these last nine months. We have learnt that partnerships – in the right circumstances – can be built much more rapidly than we thought and withstand a lot more external pressures than we might have expected. We have learnt that engaging all sectors of society, all over the world, in taking a proactive role in partnerships for development will happen more easily in the face of a crisis, but still requires a conscious and proactive approach. And we have learnt that – when managed well – digital connection and remote working can be as much an enabler as a barrier to building the relationships required for a thriving partnership.
But, even as some of our previous assumptions have been challenged, our foundational beliefs and knowledge about partnership have not changed. We still see the necessity of trust and strong relationships for any burgeoning and ongoing partnership. We still see the need for bold, supportive leadership. And we still believe, indeed more strongly than ever, in the power of partnership across societal sectors to build a resilient, sustainable future.
TPI Think Pieces are written by the TPI core team and TPI Associates to share experience, evidence and insights into active projects, programmes and action research currently underway with TPI and partners.
 Survey respondent from an INGO supporting SMEs around the world
[i] April – June 2020
[ii] Some previously or currently supported by TPI
[iii] Including: civil society/NGOs, academia, government, private sector, inter-governmental organisations
[iv] Representative of a South African based NGO
[v] Representative of an INGO leading a DFID (FCDO) funded consortium.
[vi] See TPI’s COVID blogs: April-June 2020
[vii] Representative from an INGO
[viii] Participant in a TPI roundtable
[ix] Note – at the same time, in many cases ‘rapid’ partnerships were based on pre-existing relationships, so there was some level of trust already. This point is explored further in below sections.
[x] E.g. the ‘Ventilator Challenge’ – bringing together a range of significant UK industrial, technology and engineering businesses from across the aerospace, automotive and medical sectors to rapidly design and produce medical ventilators for the UK
[xi] Survey respondent from INGO
[xii] Survey respondent from a global Charitable Foundation
[xiii] Representative from an INGO in one of TPI’s roundtable discussions
[xiv] Participant in one of TPI’s roundtable discussions
[xv] Start Network hubs: “have been created to move the network to a more balanced and distributed network, with power and decision making in the hands of organisations on the front line of crises. Hubs are collectives of local, national and international organisations operating in the same country or region. They will control their own resources and define their own responses to crises affecting their communities, united by a shared purpose and common standards, and supported by a global Start Network platform.” – for more information see https://startnetwork.org/hubs
[xviii] Other changes mentioned included more pre-selected (and particularly local) partners, and long-term partnerships built from the COVID ones.
[xix] Survey respondent from an INGO
[xx] Survey respondent from a US-based non-profit organisation
[xxi] Survey respondent from a national civil society organisation that partners with business to create jobs for women
[xxii] Survey respondent from a South African based NGO