Partnerships with purpose – Interview with Kirsty McNeill, Executive Director of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns, Save the Children UK

Kirsty was interviewed by Katri Bertram

In this interview, we discuss purpose in partnerships, the need for radical inclusion, and how complacency is a challenge to many organisations – and the development sector at large. You’ll find some key takeaways summarised at the end of the interview.

Kirsty McNeill, Executive Director of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns, Save the Children UK

Could you tell us about your background, and what you are responsible for in your role at Save the Children UK?

I lead 150 inspiring colleagues working across policy, advocacy, research, public affairs, evaluation, news, PR, digital, campaigns and organising. Before that I was a consultant, advising the senior leadership of organisations like ActionAid, Oxfam and Unicef. And before that I was in No 10 Downing Street, advising the Prime Minister and leading on external affairs, covering everything from speechwriting to our historic lists of ‘firsts’ like the first LGBT History month reception at Downing Street. I’ve always worked at the place where public opinion and public policy meet. Mobilising the public and political power behind big ideas is what gets me out of bed.

What role do external partners play for you in your position at Save the Children?

Partners are absolutely at the heart of what we do, but I think we can get caught up in thinking a partner is a formal organisation that we have to have some sort of contract or partnership agreement with. But really our partners are anyone who wants to work with us to secure children’s rights – the people who do marathons to raise money, or do a social action project with their Scouts group, or who hold a stall in their local high street to share the news about the progress aid has helped to deliver – those people are our partners just as much as other NGOs or the World Bank.

You’ve worked in the development sector for a long time. Has your own personal approach to engaging with partners changed over the years? 

I feel very lucky that I had a lot of experience of partnership working very early in my career. My first job in development was running the Stop AIDS Campaign, a coalition of more than 80 NGOs working together on global health. And I was on the board of Make Poverty History early too, and that remains one of the things I’m proudest of in my career. The success of Make Poverty History just wouldn’t have been possible without lots of organisations working together. So I think I’ve always been and remain an enthusiast for it – but the one thing that’s changed over time is the diversity of partners I’ve sought out. Coalitions which just bring together NGOs and don’t have space for people from different sectors seem to me very outdated now.

How has the development landscape changed since you started working in development? Do organisations engage with each other differently?

I think in many ways we’ve become victims of our own success. As we have won the argument for increased development spending, we’ve stopped using the very techniques we used to get there – we’ve lost our ability to tell visionary stories, mobilise people to fight for a better future, organise huge ambitious campaigns like Make Poverty History. We’ve become complacent, fixated on delivering projects instead of fighting to end poverty forever. Too many leaders have retreated to running their own organisation like it’s a business, rather than seeing themselves as a leader in a movement first and foremost.

You’ve written about advocacy partnerships for quite some time [see Kirsty’s website] and also shared some lessons in interviews. If you’d have to highlight two factors that make a successful partnership, what would these be?

Discipline, first and foremost. Is everybody clear what everybody else is bringing to the partnership? Has the conversation actually been had about what everyone has to offer and, crucially, whether they are actually willing to offer it right now? Secondly, radical inclusion – of people of different backgrounds and perspectives, and people from different types of organisations. If everyone has the same approach and same capabilities, there’s probably not much to be gained from working together. We shouldn’t forget that joint working means paying transaction costs – we should be honest about them, and if they are too high that’s fine! It’s ok to walk away from discussions about joint working if it turns out you’re too similar or not really aligned. Both of those are good reasons to walk away.

“[Successful partnerships require] radical inclusion – of people of different backgrounds and perspectives, and people from different types of organisations.”

Kirsty McNeill, Save the Children UK

Could you provide an example where working in partnership has led to a success?

I think Make Poverty History is probably the high point of joint working in the time I’ve been working internationally, but I’m also proud of how people worked together on refugee rights in 2015. It’s become really fashionable to say that big organisations are the problem and not part of the solution and that somehow big programming reach or a powerful brand are actively problematic and only small and grassroots organisations are legitimate. They certainly can be hugely impactful and inspiring, but they aren’t automatically so just by virtue of their size. What we saw in 2015 was a lot of different organisations recognising that there are different roles in a movement and people playing to their strengths. Smaller organisations who did a lot of grassroots programming had brilliant evidence about what was happening and big organisations like Save the Children could get that evidence heard in the media and by government.

How does impact factor in when you select partners whom to collaborate with?

I’d love to say it’s the key factor but hand on heart I think sometimes habit plays a big role too. We’ve been talking about that in Save the Children more and more recently – that we need to be restless in asking ‘who do we need to work with or reach?’, not just ‘who is it easiest for us to work with or reach?’.

“We need to be restless in asking ‘who do we need to work with or reach?’, not just ‘who is it easiest for us to work with or reach?’”

Kirsty McNeill, Save the Children UK

We’re still in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Has Covid in any way changed how you are engaging with partners?

I’d say we are in touch more intensively because of the rolling nature of the crisis – the minute you think you’ve fully scoped what’s happening somewhere, like in our isolation and treatment centre in Cox’s Bazar, then you suddenly have a situation like the awful blast in Beirut.

A crisis such as Covid-19 requires quick action. Do you have any advice on how to agree on new or shifting goals with partners in such a situation?

Always, always start with purpose. Your true purpose is unlikely to be ‘manage this project well’ – it will be something deeper about protecting civilians, or saving children’s lives, or ensuring people’s rights and dignity are preserved. If you’re not aligned on purpose nothing will work. If you are, almost everything will.

If you look forward 5 to 10 years, would you hope that organizations work differently together? If yes, how?

If you look at how profoundly Black Lives Matter has disrupted the cosy complacency that had dominated development for too long – and the kind of shifts organisations are promising as a result [see here for Save the Children’s position] – I don’t see how we can or should ever be the same again. That combined with the impact of coronavirus – the worst humanitarian situation in 100 years – and the existential nature of the climate emergency means we’re all going to be very different. I hope partnership and humility will become more central to how we work and that we will hold on to what we have – scale, trust, heritage – but recognise that, like any strengths, those can become weaknesses if overplayed.

Learn more about Save the Children UK here.

Summary of key takeaways:

  • Always start with purpose. If you’re not aligned on purpose nothing will work.
  • A partner does not always have to be a formal organization, and a partnership does not always have to revolve around a formal partnership agreement.
  • Ensure everybody is clear what everybody else is bringing to the partnership, and when.
  • Be honest about transaction costs from working together. Sometimes these are too high.
  • Inclusion of different backgrounds and perspectives is key. Different partners can play different functions in partnerships. Small organisations can bring great value into partnerships too.
  • Ask ‘who do we need to work with or reach?’, not just ‘who is it easiest for us to work with or reach?’

Published by Katri Bertram

Katri works in international development, and is a mom of four children. She is driven in her work to ensure that all people can receive quality healthcare, gender equality becomes a reality, and organisations working in these areas leverage the power of partnerships for impact. 
Katri has worked at the World Bank, where she headed External Relations for the Global Financing Facility for Women, Children and Adolescents (GFF), and Save the Children, a non-governmental organisation that works in 120 countries, where she headed global advocacy, policy and campaigning.
 Katri lives in Berlin/Germany, and is Finnish by nationality. She is a graduate from the London School of Economics (Master in International Relations), the Hertie School (Master in Public Policy), and the University of York (Bachelor in Economics and Politics). 
Also follow Katri on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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