Why partnerships struggle to stay focused – and how this undermines impact

In this two-part blog, this first blog looks at why many partnerships struggle to stay focused. In the second blog, we will look at how partnerships can refocus, and through initial planning increase their chances of staying focused throughout. Key points are summarised at the end of this blog.

Loss of focus results in less impact

Most partnerships are formed because organisations or partners see a clear benefit in collaborating. This may include benefits such as having more access as part of an advocacy coalition, exchange of technical expertise, or achieving economies of scale through pooled funding, and usually leads to different types of partnerships being formed around these benefits.  

However, as time passes, external circumstances change, or internal leadership and staff transition, many partnerships start to struggle with their focus. In partnerships that involve funding, donors may pull partnerships in new or different directions, especially around government transitions. Advocacy coalitions may pivot to focus on the newest crisis. Or new leadership among partners or a partnership Secretariat may push for a different focus.

Shifts in focus are not necessarily a bad thing. Partnerships can re-evaluate their value add and whether they are addressing changes and pressing issues. They can question whether the right partners are on board, and whether ways of working and implementation are leading to the most impact possible.

Challenge 1: When partnership agreements are unclear     

Problems arise when partnership agreements (implicit or explicit/legal) become unclear. If partners are not clear on who is expected to do what, how, and when, it is challenging to coordinate or pool forces to achieve more impact. Partners may start saying or doing conflicting things, or fully shift their focus away from a common aim and collaborative way of working.  

This lack of focus may also result from partnership agreements that have been too broad or vague from the start, or have been based on implicit understandings or agreements between individuals. Another cause may be that partners have implicitly or explicitly agreed to shift their focus, without communicating or updating these new agreements to all partners or staff. The risk is that, fairly quickly, no-one in the partnership has an explicit reference point or framework to guide what they are working towards in practice. Usually sooner than later, this results in uncertainty, misunderstandings, erosion of trust, and identity and value add crises. In practice, this translates into a lack of real engagement or implementation – and ultimately lack of impact.

Challenge 2: When mandates are unclear

Even where a partnership strategy or agreement may be clear, if this does not align with the mandates, willingness and resources of organisations or partners, partnerships are unlikely to deliver. This scenario is common especially among organisational partnerships, which tend to have a coordinating Secretariat.   

Furthermore, organisations that are party to partnerships themselves frequently go through changes and transitions. In international development partnerships involving government representatives, political priorities and budgets shift regularly. Implementing partners may suddenly no longer operate in certain countries or entire regions. Technical partners may fully shift their focus with new funding, staff, or strategies. The result is that a disconnect arises between partnership agreements and Secretariat planning and priorities, and what partners are willing or able to deliver. In practice, this means that there is more partnership rhetoric and internal engagement (meetings, planning, etc.) than implementation – and ultimately very little, if any, impact.

Challenge 3: When circumstances change

We live in times of multiple crises, and radical economic and political transitions. Governments and donors face pressures to shift their priorities and budgets. Civic space is increasingly restricted in many countries, but also in many multilateral mechanisms and processes. The private sector operates in a volatile economic and political context.

These constant shifts often pull partners in different directions. Partners with limited capacity may see staff and budget resources spread thin, or diverted into issues of the day. New markets, niches, and (also funding) opportunities may arise for partners, and new partnerships that get a lot of attention (and potential funding) are frequently formed in times of crises. The result is frequently the same as in the scenarios above: partnerships lose a sense of urgency, direction, and no longer act as platforms for real engagement or implementation – resulting in significantly less or no impact.

Focus, focus, and refocus

Despite the above challenges, many partnerships have successfully managed to retain their focus, or refocus their efforts to deliver more impact. In our next blog we will outline in more detail how they succeed.

Unfortunately, many partnerships also fail to focus, and refocus when needed. The result is that international development partnerships are rarely terminated. They live on through peripheral, sometimes symbolic engagement, and in the worst case as mere rhetoric and a drain on limited resources and capacity.  

Key points summarized:

  • As time passes, external circumstances change, or internal leadership and staff transitions, many partnerships start to struggle with their focus.
  • Shifts in focus are not necessarily a bad thing. They can result in course correction, adjustments to partnerships and ways of working, and lead to more impact.
  • However, many partnerships face challenges when partnership agreements are or become unclear, when partners themselves face transitions and changes, and when external circumstances change and new partnerships are formed.
  • If these challenges are left unaddressed, many partnerships live on delivering peripheral results, or in the worst case only rhetoric.
  • In our next blog we will outline how partnerships can retain a focus, refocus when needed, and succeed.

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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