Building a new partnership – the role of individuals

In this blog we explore how individuals play different roles in building new partnerships. Understanding these roles and their functions makes navigating a potential partner, outreach, and building a new partnership easier. Key lessons are summarised at the end of this blog.

Building a partnership doesn’t happen without individuals

Most organisational partnerships don’t just happen as a contract or agreement between two organisations. Organisations are made up of individuals, who need to interact to build and agree on partnerships.

Organisations are made up of individuals, who need to interact to build and agree on partnerships.

Existing connections

In our article on stakeholder mapping, we explained why it is critical to first understand the status quo before making any changes to partnerships. This also applies to new partnerships. In addition to determining where a potential partner is positioned on a stakeholder map, organisations considering engaging new partners should answer a number of questions:

  • Have any discussions previously taken place, including under former leadership?
  • Are teams or staff already in touch and collaborating, including informally or through other platforms or networks?
  • Are former staff members working in the other organization?
  • Has either organization previously voiced (publicly or informally) any views on the other, e.g. supporting or criticizing the organization?
  • Do any supporters, allies or current partners have good ties to the other organization?

Individual roles for new partnerships

The following roles or functions can be attributed to different individuals in the process of building new partnerships:  

1. Gatekeeper

Every organisation has gatekeepers; individuals who can influence whether a meeting or call takes place, with whom, and when. Gatekeepers can include assistants of leadership, who are responsible for scheduling. Or they can be specialist staff, who provide guidance to leadership on the importance and perceived level of another organization or individual. Treating gatekeepers professionally and with respect will increase the likelihood that a first or follow-up meeting takes place. However, gatekeepers do not tend to hold the final say in an organization, and are sometimes circumvented (e.g. if leadership agrees to communicate directly to schedule meetings, or is connected via a third party).

2. Connector

Connectors are individuals inside organisations who already know each other and are able to connect other teams or leadership levels. They can also be third parties that have connections to both organisations. Connectors play an important role in helping navigate who is best placed for a discussion within the respective organization, and as a source of information (e.g. evaluation of trustworthiness, importance). Connectors can also act as gatekeepers and vouch for partners.

3. Case builder

Most large organisations have staff that prepare briefings ahead of leadership meetings, and often also provide recommendations. They are tasked to conduct research on the other organization, evaluate opportunities, raise red flags, and prepare questions or talking points. Through these briefings, they can build a case for (or against) a partnership. Case builders sometimes also conduct preparatory meetings with their counterparts, share information that will be helpful in preparation of the meeting (i.e. cross-briefing), and may also be included in leadership meetings or post-meeting evaluations and decisions. In partnership discussions, an organisation may have several case builders – or also rely on external case builders/analysts – to ensure that diverse perspectives or more information sources are taken into account.         

4. Decision maker

Every organisation has a decision maker. This may be the head of the organization, or a leadership team that is authorized to make decisions, including on pursuing partnerships. The time of and access to decision makers is usually safeguarded by gatekeepers, and in large organizations, they tend to rely on case builders to inform their decisions. If decision makers connect directly (e.g. circumventing gate keepers or excluding case builders), in most organisations they still need to go back to making a case and conducting due diligence before any decisions on partnerships are made. Most formal partnerships can only be formed with the buy-in of a decision maker.

5. Veto players

Most large organisations have an authorised decision maker, but certain strategic or funding decisions may require board or legal approval. A board usually includes donors to the organization, some of whom may hold a formal or informal veto power over decisions (i.e. can block decisions running counter to their interests). Legal staff or teams may hold similar authority. Understanding an organisation’s governance structure and who ultimately holds power is important in partnership discussions, as this both influences who needs to be in favor (or not against) as well as timelines.    

6. Bridge builder

Different organisations have different mandates, priorities, ways of working, and working cultures. Building partnerships and bridging these differences is often a challenging process. The function of a bridge builder in these situations is critically important. Bridge builders have an ability to translate between different stakeholders, find common ground, untangle misunderstandings, or negotiate compromises. Bridge builders can be separate to the above roles, or be a function a connector, case builder, or decision maker plays.

Individual agency and behaviour matters

Many partnerships are formed or fail in practice because of individuals. Understanding the roles outlined in this article can help when building new partnerships and navigating organisations.

Many partnerships are formed or fail in practice because of individuals.

In future blogs, we will also discuss the motivations and incentives of individuals, building on our previous article on the importance of trust. We will also discuss implementation of partnership goals, and exit strategies when partnerships run their course.

Key points summarised

  • Organisational partnerships require individuals to interact and agree to work in partnerships.
  • New organizational partnerships may build on previous or current individual relationships.  
  • Different individuals can play different roles in new partnerships. These roles are: gatekeeper, connector, case builder, decision maker, veto player, bridge builder.
  • Understanding the different functions of individuals is important, as this both influences who needs to be on board (or not against) as well as timelines.    

Further resources on partnerships can be found here.

Questions or feedback: Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions, feedback, or would like to contribute to the work and resources provided by Partners for Impact (PFI).

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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