International Development Partnerships – Dos and Don’ts

In this blog we list ten “dos and don’ts” for international development organisations that are working in or looking to work in partnership.

Yes, we can partner – but how?

Many organisations working in international development have a mandate and mission to achieve impact (defined e.g. as lives saved, poverty eradicated, development potential of populations improved, sustainable economic growth managed). Most organisations, however, fail to deliver this impact because their expertise is too narrow, their capacity or funding too small, their ability to implement is limited, and their focus is increasingly internal as they grow. This undermines the credibility of organisations, but also of donors and fundraisers.

Strategic partnerships built around achieving intended impact can expand expertise and learning, resources and implementation capacity, and help reap significant efficiencies and keep a focus on external impact.

The route to achieving more impact – and the route to nowhere

However, getting partnerships right to achieve more impact requires a razor-sharp focus, a specific process of planning and working together, and the right incentives.

Not all partnerships or types of partnerships lead to more impact in international development.

To help navigate this process, we have listed ten “dos and don’ts” for international development organisations to consider when they work in partnership.

DOs for international development partnerships

  1. DO – Be crystal clear about what impact you aim to achieve, together with your partner(s). Knowing what you aim to achieve will help you select the right partners, agree on common goals, and find a common path to achieve these goals.
  2. DO – Work with a stakeholder map. Without a stakeholder map, you‘ll quickly lose overview of what the status quo is, and where you need to get to. A stakeholder map is the first step to prioritising partnerships and resources.
  3. DO – Build trust with your partner(s). Trust will ensure you have meaningful conversations and collaboration, and help you weather difficult challenges. Lack of or broken trust is the best way to end a meaningful partnership.
  4. DO – Be transparent about the type of partnership you have. Being transparent about how you partner is important for credibility, both with your partners and externally.
  5. DO – Be realistic about challenges you face and may face, including caused by your own lack of internal incentives and capacity. Working in partnerships takes time and requires resources, including staff capacity and skills. Make sure you can internally deliver on what you promise externally.

DONT’s for international development partnerships

  1. DON’T use partnership discussions and processes to help you determine your own mandate and impact goals. If you don‘t know what your impact goals are and how you can contribute to getting there, your partners are unlikely to want to be caught in the middle of your confusion.
  2. DON’T waste everyone’s time and resources if you don’t know why you should partner, or believe you can better go it all alone. Partnerships should be based on mutual respect, and a belief that all parties contribute with their value add. Don‘t engage in tokenism.
  3. DON’T manipulate, bluff, or overpromise what you will be able to deliver. Partnerships do not serve a function of helping you fake it until you make it. Or if it‘s all for faking it, you may want to re-evaluate why you are working in international development.
  4. DON’T engage in partnerships and list partners in all your materials just because others do. You‘ll lose credibility once anyone looks past the smokescreen.
  5. DON’T expect your staff to deliver on additional partnership goals if these do not align with their work plans, capacity, skills, and organisational career incentives. Claiming that external collaboration is important but making it impossible for staff to deliver is setting yourself up for failure.

Make it count

Strategic partnerships can help organisations innovate, reap economies of scale, and reduce inefficiencies and duplication – and ultimately deliver more impact.

However, not all partnerships, types of partnerships, and ways of approaching working in partnership will deliver on these above aims. Working with partners uses scarce international development resources, including taxpayer funds, individual donations made to NGOs, and staff capacity that could be used elsewhere.

These ten dos and don’ts can help organisations make sure they are making their partnership work count, and that they are on the route to achieving more impact.

Key points summarised

Dos and don’ts for international development partnerships

  1. DO – Be crystal clear about what impact you aim to achieve.
  2. DO – Work with a stakeholder map.
  3. DO – Build trust.
  4. DO – Be transparent about the type of partnership you have.
  5. DO – Be realistic about the challenges you may face.
  6. DON’T – Don’t determine your impact goals through partnership processes.
  7. DON’T – Don’t partner if you believe you can go it all alone.
  8. DON’T – Don’t manipulate, bluff, or overpromise.
  9. DON’T – Don’t partner just because everyone else does.
  10. DON’T – Don’t set up your staff for failure.

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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