Each sector brings a different set of values, priorities, resources and competencies to a partnership. The challenge of any partnership is to bring these diverse contributions together, linked by a common vision in order to achieve sustainable development goals.
Organisations choose to partner because they cannot achieve their desired goals by other, non-partnership means. In other words, there is inevitably a level of self-interest in the motivation of all partners and each partner will need to see benefits from their collaboration, measured in their own terms, if their involvement in the partnership is to be sustained over time.
Interestingly, the types of benefit that can accrue to partner organisations from engagement are similar for each sector, whether business, public sector or civil society. Such potential benefits include:
- Access (to knowledge): Mitigating risk and reducing potential mistakes by greater understanding of the operational context
- Access (to people): Drawing on a wider pool of technical expertise, experience, skills, labour and networks
- Effectiveness: Creating more appropriate products and services, whether commercial or not-for-profit
- Efficiency: Reducing (by sharing) costs and delivery systems and avoiding duplication
- Innovation: Developing unexpected / new ways of addressing old issues and complex challenges
- Human resource development: Enhancing professional skills and competencies in the work force (many report this as a major unexpected benefit from working cross-sectorally)
- Long-term stability and impact: Achieving greater ‘reach’ by being efficient and effective means an expanded sustainable development impact. This is a direct objective of government and civil society, but also critical to the sustainability of business.
- Reputation and credibility: Achieving genuinely earned organisational reputation and greater credibility.
A note on individual partner benefits
Whilst it is essential for partners to share a common goal and to agree the hoped-for outcomes, impacts and business for their partnership as a whole, it is also important that partners recognise and accept that each partner organisation has the right to expect benefits that will be specific to them. When potential partners spend time getting to know each other and thereby deepening their understanding of each other’s priorities, individual partners feel more able to present their specific goals. Increasingly Partnering Agreements reflect the right of each partner to achieve specific goals as well as common goals. The key is to ensure that any specific goals are acceptable (even if not shared) to the other partners and, obviously, to check that they are not in conflict with the shared goal of the partnership.
The partnership as a whole will benefit from each individual partner organisation seeing tangible value-added to their organisational goals and priorities. It is therefore in the interests of each partner to be aware of and to contribute to individual partner goals – wherever possible.
It is becoming increasingly clear that partnering is not a low-cost, quick fix or risk-free option. Indeed the costs of partnering can be high, not least because of the time needed to explore, establish and manage the partner relationships. Potential partners need to consider the opportunity costs and, preferably, establish some benchmarks against which they will measure whether the hoped-for outcomes of partnering are really worth the investment they are making. All too often, partnering in its early stages can be a ‘catch 22’; partners invest time, energy and ideas (often over months and sometimes years) and then continue to stick with the endeavour even when the transaction costs are becoming unacceptable. This is often because they feel pressure from their colleagues for some kind of return on investment.
As an aid to organisations considering a partnership approach we advise an early internal consideration of the areas of potential risk including:
- Loss of autonomy: the challenge of shared decision-making processes; the need for building consensus with partners before action can be taken and the implications of wider accountability (to other partners and to wider beneficiaries)
- Conflicts of interest: where a decision or action that is right for the interests of the partnership but may be at odds with the individual organisation’s interests
- Drain on resources: commitment (often significantly greater than anticipated) of time and energy of key staff in partnership building and project development in addition to any additional financial or other resource contributions
- Implementation challenges: the day-to-day demands of delivering a partnership programme as a collaborative venture, with all the additional management, tracking, reporting and evaluation requirements that entails.
- Negative reputation impact: when partnerships go wrong causing damage to the reputation or track record of individual partners by association.
A note on individual partner risks
The partnership as a whole will benefit from each individual partner organisation mitigating and managing risk effectively. It is therefore in the interests of each partner to be aware of and to contribute to lowering the risk for each partner organisation, wherever possible.
The Sustainable Development Goals Partnering Guidebook was developed jointly with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, as part of the Partnership Accelerator. The Guidebook aims to convey the magic of how multi-stakeholder partnerships at country level can deliver significantly towards the Sustainable Development Goals and provide guidance on how to build robust, effective collaborations that can achieve extraordinary results.