Exit strategies for partnerships – why they are important for impact in international development

In this blog we explain why partners need to agree on exit strategies before partnerships are formed, and outline how different exit strategies work in practice for different types of partnerships in international development. Key lessons are summarised at the end of this blog.

Together forever may not deliver the most impact

When partnerships fail to deliver more impact or no longer meet the needs and criteria for why a partnership was formed, an exit strategy can help organisations leave or terminate a partnership, and use scarce resources and capacity for other purposes. Ideally, partners will have agreed on an exit strategy – and when and how this can be triggered and agreed – prior to finalising a partnership. Partners should also carefully manage this exit process, as abrupt or poorly managed changes to partnerships may result in legal conflicts and undermine trust and an organisation’s or entire partnership’s reputation.

“Partners should manage an exit process carefully, as abrupt or poorly managed changes to partnerships may result in legal conflicts and undermine trust and an organisation’s or entire partnership’s reputation.”

Using a typology of partnerships that we outlined in a previous blog (logo partnerships, technical partnerships, funding partnerships, organisational partnerships), we will illustrate what different exit strategies can look like, and how they can be triggered and implemented in practice.

Exit strategy for logo partnerships

Logo partnerships are the most common type of partnership in international development, and are frequently formed ahead of and for large summits and advocacy campaigns. Logo partnerships are premised on the assumption that more logos carry more weight, and a few organisations (such as the UN or governments), bring credibility and draw attention. In their loosest form, logo partners may not know much about each other, have any regular contact, or may not even have heard of other partners in the coalition.

As logo partnerships rarely involve regular funding flows or legal agreements, partners can fairly simply leave such partnerships, by notifying a convener that they are no longer available to co-fund or co-sponsor an event, or to sign onto a campaign. An organisation may have decided that the partnership does not add much value to visibility, credibility or is not worth the investment in capacity, time or funds. Alternatively, an organisation may no longer be invited to join such a partnership if it is perceived to have become a risk to credibility or has during previous partnership efforts not provided any or sufficient support. Entire partnerships can also be terminated, if e.g. an advocacy ask has been achieved, or a key summit has passed.

Exit strategy for technical partnerships

Members in technical partnerships tend to know each other, meet regularly, and engage in the exchange of data and analysis, and negotiation processes that lead to common positions and outputs (such as a report, or collaboration on innovations or in implementation). Technical partnerships can be informal or formalised, but similar to logo partnerships may include partners who have not been involved in the full process but agree to add their organisational logo to an end product.

Exiting technical partnerships is slightly more complex than exiting logo partnerships. A partnership may for its outputs or agreed impact goal require the data or presence in a country or region that one or two key partners provide. Entire partnerships can fail if such key partners do not deliver or break away, undermining other partners’ past and current investments.

This shows why when forming technical partnerships, partnership agreements should outline clear criteria for what partners need to be able to deliver, clearly list deliverables, responsibilities, timelines, and also include non-compliance processes – including what happens to a partnership if core partners de facto or formally exit the partnership.    

“Partnership agreements should outline clear criteria for what partners need to be able to deliver, clearly list deliverables, responsibilities, timelines, and also include non-compliance processes – including what happens to a partnership if core partners de facto or formally exit the partnership.”  

Exit strategy for funding partnerships

Funding partnerships tend to be more formalised, whereby partners have agreed to co-fund collaborative work, or where one partner provides funding to another (i.e. a donor-recipient relationship for a specific output). Where funding is longer term or at greater scale, formalised processes such as due diligence, legal contracts setting common goals and payment triggers, as well as regular monitoring are more common. Formal funding partnerships tend to involve smaller numbers of partners.

Exiting funding partnerships usually requires legal negotiations and agreements, or proof on non-compliance with legal agreements. A funder may, however, also have to exit a partnership because it no longer has funds available (e.g. budget changes for government donors, or a financial crisis for private sector partners); or a recipient because it is no longer able to implement an agreement (e.g. if it no longer operates in a specific region). As for technical partnerships, partnership agreements need to clearly outline criteria for what partners are expected to deliver, and include non-compliance processes.

Exit strategy for organisational partnerships

Organisational partnerships usually involve governance mechanisms that bind partners together. These may be legal partnerships (for example when funding is required for a seat in a partnership) or take looser forms (where technical or other agreements to work together suffice to gain a seat at the table).

Exiting organisational partnerships is usually defined in a governance agreement, e.g. through rotation and election policies, or funding thresholds for holding a seat. A governance document is key for defining what triggers an exit, or what happens to an entire partnership if e.g. key funders break away. Governance documents that fail to address these possibilities ex ante usually result in problematic situations down the line, e.g. if partners are not contributing or acting as expected, or if partners fail to rotate off seats when expected.

“A governance document is key for defining what triggers an exit, or what happens to an entire partnership if e.g. key funders break away. Governance documents that fail to address these possibilities ex ante usually result in problematic situations down the line.”

An exit is not always a bad thing for impact

In international development, it is rare that entire partnerships are terminated. Usually, when partners exit, others take their positions. Alternatively, when partners are unable to deliver agreed outputs or outcomes, the partnership redefines its impact targets or interim targets to suit existing partner needs and abilities.

Working with diverse partners, and in changing partnerships, is often a good thing. New partners bring in different perspectives, innovation, and are able to point to address challenges in different ways. New partners may bring in new expertise and ways of working that can add great value for impact.

However, for organisations to be able to work with new partners – with their existing capacity – some old partnerships also need to end. This applies to donors (who require time for proper oversight of what they are funding), technical partners (who often need to address complex issues, and invest a lot of time and resources into evidence-generation and contextual analysis), as well as partners who are bound together through governance mechanisms (as they require time to agree on common impact goals, how best to reach these, and actual implementation).

“For organisations to be able to work with new partners – with their existing capacity – some old partnerships also need to end.”

Just as often as partnerships are formed for the sake of partnership in international development (and not for impact), many partnerships are kept the same, alive on paper, or as a drain on organisational capacity “until death do us part”. This is a significant cost for impact, scarce organisational capacity, and shows why exit strategies are a critical instrument in development partnerships, and need to be used accordingly.   

“Many partnerships are kept the same, alive on paper, or as a drain on organisational capacity ‘until death do us part’. This is a significant cost for impact.”

Key points summarized:

  • An exit strategy can help organisations leave or terminate a partnership that is not delivering impact or serving other needs, and free up scarce resources and capacity for other purposes.
  • Different types of partnerships (e.g. logo partnerships, technical partnerships, funding partnerships, organisational partnerships) have different ways of agreeing and implementing exit strategies.
  • In international development, it is rare that entire partnerships are terminated. However, for organisations to maximise their impact, they need to be able to work with new partners – with their existing capacity. This means that some old partnerships also need to end.

You can find further reading and resources on partnerships here.   

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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