Partnership criteria – How to move toward impact in practice

In this blog we provide guidance on partnership criteria, and explain how partnership criteria can help partnerships stay on track to deliver impact. Key lessons are summarised at the end of this blog.

Partnership criteria can help determine whether a partnership is able deliver impact in practice

Are all key stakeholders suitable partners?

As we outlined in our blog on stakeholder mapping, most successful partnerships are not born by chance. A structured process of mapping current and potential partners helps organisations identify key players that are relevant for their impact goals.

Partners for Impact (PFI) – Stakeholder map example (2020)

However, knowing whom to partner with in theory is only one side of the equation. Being able to work in partnership with another organisation is the other. This means that even the best partnerships in theory will fail in practice if, for example, there is no trust in a partnership.

“Even the best partnerships in theory will fail in practice if, for example, there is no trust in a partnership.”

Partnership criteria

Before entering or changing partnerships, organisations need to understand their own and each other’s needs. Developing partnership criteria, and regularly re-evaluating whether partnerships meet these criteria, can help organisations and partnerships determine whether partnerships are needed, whether they are worth the investments required, and when they should be changed or terminated.

Examples of partnership criteria are outlined below. These may differ, depending on organisations’ foci and needs. However, three general rules of thumb are important to keep in mind when developing and evaluating these criteria:

  1. Criteria lists should be kept simple: A common mistake made in many mappings or frameworks is to create extremely complex, comprehensive, and detailed lists and maps. In practice the result is that no-one remembers what was included, they quickly become outdated, they are cumbersome to apply to practical cases and decisions, and no-one uses these. 5-7 criteria, each with 2-3 sentences explaining what each criterion means, is sufficient for an overall framework.
  2. Criteria should not contradict each other: In addition to being kept simple and ideally self-explanatory, criteria listed should not contradict each other. For example, if impact is to be achieved using “all it takes”, another criteria should not focus on “minimising resources used”. If organisations or partners need to spend a lot of time debating which criteria trumps another, partnership criteria end up adding more complexity and confusion to a process, rather than simplifying it.
  3. Criteria must guide action: As with all frameworks and guidelines, partnership criteria are only useful if there is an agreement that it will guide action. This requires leadership buy-in, and organisational agreement to use criteria to guide decisions, including to exit partnerships.

Examples of partnership criteria

The below illustrates examples of what partnership criterion could include:

  • Sharing expertise

Partners will contribute with and share expertise not available in the other respective organisation. Partners will agree on what expertise will be shared, by whom, and what process of sharing will be used (e.g. communication channels, timeliness, confidential or public, respective resource and capacity investments, etc.). Partners will also have an implementation plan for how this expertise will be used to drive impact.

  • Brand

Partners will be selected based on the credibility of their brand and adherence to an organisation’s principles and ethical ways of working. This will include a risk-assessment of whether partnering could undermine the impact an organisation aims to achieve (e.g. weakening the ability to advocate against child labor, if a partner has subsidiaries or engages directly in child labor; or not being able to communicate about the adverse health effects of alcohol, if a partner is an alcohol company).

  • Trust

Partners agree to communicate transparently, to their best knowledge, in a timely manner, and benefiting mutual trust and the common impact agreed for a partnership. Communication should be institutionalised, and not be limited to individuals only. A communications plan should include a process in case misunderstandings, focal point transitions, crises, or external shocks arise and corrective or rapid action is needed. An explicit exit plan with criteria (e.g. time, breach of contract, failure to deliver on agreements, etc.) should be agreed before a partnership is finalised.

  • Who benefits

Partners must agree on common impact goals before finalising a partnership agreement. These impact goals should clearly identify who or what the end beneficiary of investments and collaboration should be, and how successes and impact will be measured. Interim goals and a timeframe should be included to guide the tracking of progress.  

  • Costs

Partners should clearly outline what resources and capacity will be used to deliver on partnership goals, and when these resources will be invested. How will external costs be covered or shared (e.g. implementation costs, events and publications, or engaging further partners)?

On track – and what to do if not

The above criteria can help pre-empt many misunderstandings, incompatible partnerships, and also mitigate risks and crises. They can also help guide organisations in selecting compatible partners, and ensure that their core needs for a partnership are being met.

Partnership criteria also help organisations stay on track to deliver what is important (their mission), in a way that is compatible with their ways of working.  

“Partnership criteria also help organisations stay on track to deliver what is important (their mission), in a way that is compatible with their ways of working.”

Finally, partnership criteria can help trigger exit strategies, e.g. when trust is breached, or if costs are not being covered as agreed. We will in our next blog dive deeper into these exit strategies.

Key points summarised

  • Knowing whom to partner with in theory is only one side of the equation. Being able to work in partnership with another organisation is the other.
  • Developing partnership criteria before entering or changing partnerships can help organisations understand their own and each other’s needs.
  • Partnership criteria can also provide a guide to when partnerships should be changed or terminated.
  • Partnership criteria can differ, but they should i) be short and clear, ii) not be contradictory, and iii) guide and determine action.
  • Partnership criteria can include, for example, sharing expertise, brand, trust, agreeing who benefits, and sharing of costs.

Further reading:

De Backer, Ruth, Rinaudo Eileen (McKinsey), Improving the management of complex business partnerships (March 2019)

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 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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