In this blog we discuss what happens when partnerships run out of steam, what the stumbling blocks are, and how partnerships can ensure they stay on track – to deliver impact. Key points are summarised at the end.
Every week, a new MoU is announced between international development organisations, and several new partnerships are formed each year. Such announcements include ambitious impact goals, the value add partners bring to the table, and are surrounded by some excitement and high expectations.
And then, long stretches of silence frequently follow. Why?
One reason is that partnerships take some time to move from design to implementation. Partnerships that are born from crises may not have had a strategic design phase upfront, and have to scramble to do so after being formed (including which exact partners to include, how to organise governance, start fundraising, recruit or reorganise staff, etc.). Moving to implementation may then take a long time, and communicating progress or interim results may take years. Some partnerships get stuck in endless design loops – especially if they are unable to raise sufficient funds or bring together the right stakeholders. Some never make it to implementation, and understandably the result is partnership fatigue.
“Partnerships take some time to move from design to implementation…Some never make it to implementation, and understandably the result is partnership fatigue.”
Partnership fatigue can also take place not only within one partnership, but as partners engage in so many partnerships (for example, there are 5,185 officially registered multi-stakeholder partnerships with the UN), stretching their internal capacities too thin. Due to the heavily siloed nature of international development, some partners also keep meeting each other in various partnerships, board meeting after another.
Looking more closely at the composition of partnerships – and the lack of their diversity in membership, many new partnerships announcements are actually just reinvigoration efforts of existing partners, or an attempt to bring more momentum to organisations that in some form collaborate already. Many partnerships lack or are unable to retain a clear focus, and have mandates that easily blur into each other. This inevitably results in partnership fatigue.
“Many partnerships lack or are unable to retain a clear focus, and have mandates that easily blur into each other. This inevitably results in partnership fatigue.”
It is true that many partnerships are formed because they address a new crisis, niche, or try to bring new scale, reach, or innovation to an issue area. But equally often it is the case that existing partnerships have run out of steam, or have failed to keep momentum to collaborate meaningfully.
Another important factor contributing to partnership fatigue is that partnership and internal organisational and staff incentives rarely align. Whereas a partnership may have goals to increase geographic reach, take innovations to greater scale, or benefit from diverse expertise, internal incentives tend to reward organisational and staff interests, such as increasing brand visibility, raising more funds, and increasing staff size. Delivering on partnership goals while internal goals and success are measured elsewhere is a stretch even for the most dedicated.
“Another important factor contributing to partnership fatigue is that partnership and internal organisational and staff incentives rarely align…Delivering on partnership goals while internal goals and success are measured elsewhere is a stretch even for the most dedicated.”
How to overcome partnership fatigue
How, then, can partnership fatigue be overcome and can partnerships be reinvigorated to deliver more impact? The below 5 points can guide organisations and leadership.
- Governance. Are the right partners on board, and not just the usual suspects from the sector? Is the partnership’s stakeholder mapping still relevant for the impact it aims to achieve, and has it considered diversity in its composition?
- Focus. Are the goals of the partnership clear to all partners and staff, and does that partnership have a strategy for implementation?
- Roadmap. Are deliverables on the pathway to impact goals clear? Does the partnership have the necessary capacity, and are internal incentives aligned with impact goals?
- Communication. Are partners communicating and measuring progress on impact goals regularly? Is this taking place at all partnership levels, not just between leadership who meet at board meetings?
- Exit. Is there an exit plan with clear triggers if steam has run out of a partnership fully, and no-one can really answer what the impact of the partnership has been or is?
A final aspect that helps in every partnership is that partners respect – and even like – each other. For complex, long-haul impact goals, it‘s not a nicety to get along well, it‘s a necessity.
Key points summarised
- Partnership fatigue is a common challenge in many international development partnerships, and hampers impact.
- Partnership fatigue can be caused by factors such as: an inability to move to implementation, an overstretch of partners in too many or too many similar partnerships, unclear mandates and goals, and/or organisational and staff goals that are not aligned with partnership impact goals.
- Partnership fatigue can be prevented or overcome by focusing on 5 key areas: governance, a clear strategy for implementation, alignment of incentives, communication, and having an exit plan.
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