Embracing the spirit of consortium: It's about making the right investments, not cutting delivery costs

by 13th Nov 2018
Girls from Syria take CARE-supported taekwondo class in Azraq refugee camp in Jordan Girls from Syria take CARE-supported taekwondo class in Azraq refugee camp in Jordan

Working in consortium to deliver large, complex programmes has become the norm for NGOs over the last few years. Increasingly, working in consortium is a clear expectation set out in donor tenders and calls for proposals. But is the sector taking this approach for the right reasons? And do donors really understand what it means to work in consortium, or do they just see it as a way for them to save some of their own time and money?

CARE International’s portfolio is increasingly focused on consortia. In the MENA region alone, almost $200m of CARE’s funding is delivered through consortia. And recently, we’ve been taking some time to see what we have learnt from our work in consortium.

A strong case study is the Syria Resilience Consortium (SRC), one of our most ambitious consortia. The consortium was founded in 2016 and is made up of six INGO partners – CARE as the lead working with Danish Refugee Council, Humanity and Inclusion, International Rescue Committee, Norwegian Refugee Council, and Mercy Corps (in partnership with 10+ Syrian NGOs). The partners came together around a long-term vision for the Syrian humanitarian crisis, aiming to reach conflict-affected communities to help restore their livelihoods and strengthen their capacity to respond to shocks.

Ideal partnership or marriage of convenience?

When we were setting up our partnerships for the SRC, we wanted to work with organisations that could cover specific thematic and geographic areas. We wanted:

  • partners who had experience of resilient livelihoods programming in active conflict;
  • gender, age and disability inclusive approaches;
  • organisations that could cover a wide geographic scope, including the government of Syria and opposition-held areas so that we could reach those in need across the country under a ‘whole of Syria’ approach.

A best practice feature of the SRC is that it marries frontline agencies that have recognised humanitarian recovery experience with a transversal agency to shape design.

Lessons learned in the setting-up process:

  1. Partners should be based on programmatic or geographic complementarity (not similarity) and then vetted. This is not regularly happening in all consortia.
  2. Consider whether you’re happy for the other agencies to have an equal decision-making role on issues that affect your programming. This works best when partners have similar levels of capacity and quality of operations.
  3. You have to consider what level of complexity you want to take on – six organisations is a lot to manage. But it does mean that the consortium has great leverage and collective voice. Think about the trade-offs that you are willing to make when you build your consortium.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Group decision-making is slow. We had good buy-in, with each agency investing some money up-front to build the systems needed to make the consortium work, even before a grant was secured. But even with that commitment, it took us about 18 months to get the SRC from inception to signing the first contract.  We focused too much on procedural issues, and not enough on building consensus and unpicking possible sources of conflict between partners.

During set-up it is essential to get the governance right. The SRC’s governance structure is multi-layered, with area coordinators, member representatives, a steering committee made up of country directors. But crucially it has an independent Programme Coordination Unit (PCU).

The PCU is able to be an honest broker and arbitrator, and is not seen as acting solely in the service of the prime. It has pushed forward joint learning and research that provide thought leadership in the field of resilient livelihoods in conflict. The lines of responsibility need to be clearly set out from the beginning.

Lessons learned in establishing the governance structure:

  1. Consortia should not be about saving costs, but about making the right investments. Consortia take a lot of time, coordination, effort and resources. It’s important that donors understand and provide the time and resources needed for the set-up of any consortium.
  2. Get the governance right before signing any grants. Make sure the role of each part of the governance structure is very clear and there is ongoing buy-in to participate meaningfully.
  3. The PCU is critical; make sure it is budgeted and staffed adequately. The consortium manager should be a senior-level staff member with diplomatic skills. Other staff should have negotiation and coordination, not just technical, skills.

Getting the benefits of working in consortium

Once grants were signed, it took a long time for the consortium to get up to speed, meeting targets and spend commitments. But the flexibility and coordination that’s built into the consortium, including moving budget between partners as circumstances and access change, means that we are now meeting those targets.

We’ve learnt that, even if a governance structure looks good on paper, it can still be lacking in practice if agencies don’t make the effort to engage. If the consortium funding is small in comparison to bilateral projects, it can get deprioritised.

Agencies need to be in the spirit of consortium to get the best out of this mechanism. It’s not just about the size of the funding – it’s also about what we can achieve together. The SRC has helped us deliver on Grand Bargain commitments, including:

  • harmonised M&E and reporting system with minimum benchmarks and harmonised Cash for Work (CfW) amounts;
  • better coordination and division of operational areas, avoiding overlaps and duplications;
  • improved information-sharing regarding good practices, intervention modalities, and learnings in an environment where polarisation, division and lack of trust hinders information-sharing;
  • donor harmonisation, with several donors agreeing to a unified quarterly reporting template, common deadlines, and joint donor visits.

It’s also been very attractive to donors, and we now have support from the European Commission, as well as the Swedish, Norwegian and Danish Governments, with Canada coming on board shortly.

Lessons learned in working together:

  1. The role of the PCU should be about lesson learning and improvement, not just about extracting information.
  2. Stay agile, refreshing the consortium strategy when circumstances change. 
  3. Make the governance work: each agency must participate at an appropriate level in the structure, and the PCU should be empowered to act independently of the lead. 
  4. The spirit of consortium is very important: if you want to get the benefits of coordinating, harmonising and learning from one another, it is worth prioritising consortia, regardless of the percentage of your portfolio they represent.
Helen Thompson

I joined CARE International UK in 2017 and currently head up our Humanitarian team. Before CARE, I worked for DFID in Afghanistan and Palestine, as well as on the Middle East and North Africa more widely.

At CIUK I oversee programmes all over the world that respond to humanitarian need caused by natural disasters and conflicts. Some of our largest programmes support internally displaced people and vulnerable communities in Yemen and Syria.

At DFID I was an accredited governance advisor, and I’ve used this specialism to expand CARE’s work on grassroots peacebuilding and women’s leadership in conflict contexts.

One good thing I’ve read

Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a more dangerous world by Christina Lamb – I read this shortly after I left Afghanistan following a 2.5 year posting in Kabul. I found that it resonated with my experience of the country and the conflict, however limited that was by security restrictions, and provides a valuable insight into the history and futility of the war.

Email: HThompson@Careinternational.org

Twitter: @HVThompson24