Trust in partnerships is built, not given

In this blog we discuss trust in partnerships. We share some insights from research and best practices. Key lessons are summarised at the end of this blog.

It’s impossible to speak about meaningful partnerships that achieve more impact without looking at trust. Trust rarely comes up in scoping or mapping exercises, impact criteria or KPIs, but it’s the basis for any meaningful partnership. Trust may be something that is built implicitly, but it becomes very explicit when it is shaken or lost. Building and maintaining trust should be at the centre of any partnership strategy, as well as risk mitigation strategies.   

Partnerships require trust

Entering partnerships

Many organisations are concerned about working in partnership. What if an external partner steals our ideas and donors, or brands our successes as theirs? What if a partner undermines our reputation?

These are valid questions and require risk mitigation. But a decision to work together also requires weighing such risks against benefits. What if we can save millions of lives more by working together? What if we can bring down carbon emissions by 40% through our partnership? What if we can save billions of dollars? A solid cost-benefit analysis and criteria for partnership are important, but some benefit of doubt and trust are key to securing partnership agreements.

„Trust in partnerships is built, not given. Partners often need to overcome entrenched prejudices or misconceptions about other sectors before they can collaborate freely and this is best done through shared action and the demonstration of strong values… Demonstrating commitment, consistency and reliability will all contribute to the creation of trust between diverse collaborators.“

Platforms for Partnership Report

Different needs and risk preferences

Trust can mean different things to different partners, as research building on social psychology shows. These differences can be explained by partners’ different risk preferences (whether they are more risk averse or are risk takers), their own confidence (how much they can control), and their relative power (their ability to sanction).

Other factors that determine levels of trust include a partner’s reputation, capability and track record, similarities between partners (unifying culture), aligned interests, situational circumstances (e.g. a need to work together), and levels of communication.  

Trust first, verify later?

Trust and a decision to enter a partnership may also differ depending on cultural contexts. A study from 33 countries showed that European and Northern American leaders first trust, then verify, for example to ensure that “there is give, not just take.” Partners are sought primarily based on business interest, less based on personal relationships. East Asian leaders, on the other hand, focus on the reputation of partners before engaging in partnership discussion, and work through personal referrals.

In South Asia and the Middle East, leaders tend to prioritize credibility and respect, requesting others to vouch for trustworthiness before entering partnerships. Finally, Latin American leaders seek out partners primarily based on their social relationships, or where there is a good personal connection.

The importance of communication

Working in partnerships is not always easy. Identifying common goals, and ways to get there, is a complex process. Implementation is seldomly smooth, with misunderstandings, unexpected challenges and changes arising constantly. Circumstances change, as do organizations and individual staff. This is why regular and open communication, both between partners but also within organizations, is important.

When a situation changes, it can be helpful for partners to reset „through a clear and written re-articulation of shared responsibilities and outcomes.“ And when individuals who hold partnership relationships in organizations transition, ensuring continuity in institutional memory and onboarding new staff to manage relationships is key.

Shaken, or broken

Trust can easily be shaken, and also broken. In the worst case, this can result in the termination of a partnership agreement, legal conflicts, and damage to an organization’s reputation. Sometimes these breaches are contained to individual personal relationships (for example an inability or unwillingness of counterparts to engage or work together constructively or at all), at other times entire organizations get drawn into conflict or are blacklisted (i.e. listed as too risky to work together with).     

In situations where trust has been shaken, it may be helpful to hold a post-mortem meeting to clarify and rectify a situation and ensure that it is not repeated. In heated personal conflicts, mediation may be required, or individual staff members may need to be rotated from partnership engagement. And at the organizational level, developing common working principles, resetting more realistic expectations, or clarifying better ways of communication and working may help to rebuild or strengthen trust.

Ultimately, each partner needs to clarify for itself whether it has behaved and worked in a reliable manner, and whether it is able to meet expectations set and agreed for the partnership.

Key points summarized:

  • Building and maintaining trust should be at the center of any partnership strategy, as well as risk mitigation strategies
  • All partners need to demonstrate their commitment, consistency and reliability
  • Trust can mean and be determined by different things for different partners
  • The process of building and maintaining trust may differ between different cultural contexts
  • Regular and open communication, between partners but also within organizations, is important
  • Shaken or broken trust can in the worst case result in legal conflicts or the loss of organizational reputation.

Further reading:

Brett, Jeanne and Mitchell, Tyree “Searching for trustworthiness: culture, trust and negotiating new business relationships”

Hurley, Robert “The Decision to Trust”

The Partnering Initiative, “Platforms for Partnership Report”, best practices on in-country multi-stakeholder partnerships

Published by Katri Bertram

Katri has worked in global health, global public policy, and international development for 20 years, and is a mom of four children. She is driven in her work to ensure that all people can live healthy lives, equity becomes a reality, and the power of inclusive partnerships is leveraged for more impact. Katri most recently worked at the German Federal Ministry of Health on global health, focusing in particular on Germany’s G7 Presidency in 2022, G20, and the Ministry’s partnerships with non-state actors. She previously worked at the World Bank, where she was a member of the leadership team, heading External Relations (governance, fundraising, partnerships, and communications) for the Global Financing Facility for Women, Children, and Adolescents (GFF) and worked in External Relations at the World Bank’s office for Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. She has also worked for Save the Children, a non-governmental organisation that works in 120 countries, where she as a member of the global executive leadership team headed global advocacy, policy, and campaigning. Katri is a graduate of 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). Katri is fluent in English, German, and Finnish. She has received scholarships from Chevening, the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation (FES), Berlin School for Transnational Studies (BTS), the Finnish Government (CIMO), and the Hertie Foundation. Katri lives in Berlin/Germany and is Finnish by nationality. Also follow Katri on LinkedIn, Twitter, and on her personal blog, and follow her initiative on partnerships in international development (PFI) and having children and a career in Germany (KarriereFamilie). The contents of all blogs are personal and do not reflect the positions of any employers.

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