What to do when working in partnership doesn’t come naturally?

In this blog we look at why working in partnership does not come naturally for many people working in international development – and how this undermines impact. We provide a list of 5 “must-do actions” for organisations (and donors) to overcome these challenges. Key points are summarised at the end.

It’s sometimes easier to stand alone than to go together

Going alone, or going far?

Many international development organisations are founded to solve a challenge, and improve the lives of people and planet. However, there are also other interests for donors, leaders and staff when organisations are founded – many of which undermine incentives to work in partnership with other stakeholders and organisations.

For one, international development organisations are founded to showcase action and leadership. Frequently donors, but sometimes also individuals, want to be profiled as “doing good” in a certain area (e.g. ahead of UN elections), or want to leave a legacy (e.g. eradicating a disease). These motives need not be bad if impact goals are achieved (ideally efficiently). The problem is that going alone has rarely resulted in impact targets being met.

Going alone is also easier for leadership and staff, whose incentives (and career and pay rewards) are usually around organisational growth and leadership – not impact – targets. Every hour used for partnerships, collaboration and trust-building externally is seen as an hour less for competing for growth, leadership and advocacy internally.

“Every hour used for partnerships, collaboration and trust-building externally is seen as an hour less for competing for growth, leadership and advocacy internally.”

Most organisations also have limited skills and capacity to work in partnerships that would deliver impact. Very few do regular (if any) stakeholder mapping to evaluate whether they are partnering with the right organisations. Most select known partners or work with people they already know.

The costs of going alone

The results of not investing in partnerships – and not creating leadership and staff incentives to work in partnership are well known:

  • Duplication plagues the international development sector, resulting in huge staff and financial (including donor fund) inefficiencies;
  • Competition dominates over collaboration, and organisations, leadership and staff spend a lot of time competing for funds, in turf wars over mandates, and also competing for implementation (which comes at huge cost for country and local capacity);
  • Overselling and underdelivering is a common phenomenon in international development, where organisations frequently move timelines (e.g. “by 2000” becomes “by 2030”) or goalposts (e.g. “eradicating child labor” becomes “raising awareness and funds for”).

As we have showcased previously, working in partnership can also result in immense benefits:

  • Partners can leverage each others’ expertise, reach, innovations, feedback and diversity.
  • Partners can reduce inefficiencies and duplication, reap economies of scale by better aligning funds and capacity, and expand into new markets.
  • Partners can share information, risks, and advocate for change together.
  • Partners can support and guide each other in times of crisis.

“Working in partnership does not come easy for many international development organisations – but it is critical to achieve impact.”

5 must-do actions

To overcome these challenges – and to increase their impact, international development organisations must:

  1. Conduct regular stakeholder mapping, and reach out to collaborate with key partners. Ideally, donors conduct thorough market research to avoid duplication before announcing (not only legally launching) a new international development organisation. Consider merging (or where not delivering: terminating) organisations.
  2. Have a clear focus and measurable, fixed goals. Measure success and determine internal leadership and staff incentives based on external impact goals and collaboration, not on internal interests.
  3. Invest in partnership skills. There are some great resources and training on working in partnership targeted specifically and based on best practices from the international development sector. At the minimum, provide a training on stakeholder mapping.
  4. Seek collaboration proactively with new-comers as well as other organisations – especially at national and local levels where implementation takes place. Learn about what others are doing to avoid duplication, and seek efficiencies and collaboration.
  5. Include partnership skills and collaborative ways of working in recruitment processes, and redesign leadership and staff incentives to reward impact targets rather than internal growth.

Key points summarised

  • Working in partnership does not come easily for many people working in international development. This undermines impact, and also creates (financial) inefficiencies.
  • Organisations (and donors) can overcome these challenging by: (1) Conducting regular stakeholder mapping to guide partnerships (and exit/termination), (2) Having a clear focus and measurable, fixed goals, (3) Investing in partnership skills among leadership and staff, (4) Proactively seeking collaboration with and information about other stakeholders, (5) Including partnership skills in recruitment criteria, and shifting reward mechanisms to focus on external impact rather than internal growth.

For questions, feedback, or input, we would love to hear from you. You can contact us here.

Published by Katri Bertram

Katri has worked in global health, global public policy, and international development for 20 years, and is a mom of four children. She is driven in her work to ensure that all people can live healthy lives, equity becomes a reality, and the power of inclusive partnerships is leveraged for more impact. Katri most recently worked at the German Federal Ministry of Health on global health, focusing in particular on Germany’s G7 Presidency in 2022, G20, and the Ministry’s partnerships with non-state actors. She previously worked at the World Bank, where she was a member of the leadership team, heading External Relations (governance, fundraising, partnerships, and communications) for the Global Financing Facility for Women, Children, and Adolescents (GFF) and worked in External Relations at the World Bank’s office for Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. She has also worked for Save the Children, a non-governmental organisation that works in 120 countries, where she as a member of the global executive leadership team headed global advocacy, policy, and campaigning. Katri is a graduate of 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). Katri is fluent in English, German, and Finnish. She has received scholarships from Chevening, the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation (FES), Berlin School for Transnational Studies (BTS), the Finnish Government (CIMO), and the Hertie Foundation. Katri lives in Berlin/Germany and is Finnish by nationality. Also follow Katri on LinkedIn, Twitter, and on her personal blog, and follow her initiative on partnerships in international development (PFI) and having children and a career in Germany (KarriereFamilie). The contents of all blogs are personal and do not reflect the positions of any employers.

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