This year, I’ve participated in various “partnership” themed events across the Asia region. Different venues, but similar take-away recommendations about how, if we are truly to tackle social and environment issues and bring about change in the future, for the future, we must join forces with others. So far, so logical.
In some cases, the recommendation is to form alliances which might seem oxymoronic: for example, big business in partnership with local communities; municipal governments working with large NGOs. We can cope with that, too.
I’ve written before about our experiences at CARE of partnering with companies in the region (with GSK and with Diageo). These experiences are backed up by hundreds more out there, many of which are breaking new ground and offer hope for replicating models which others can adopt, adapt and improve.
But what are some of the factors in how cross-sector partnering actually works that we often overlook?
We hear a lot about partnership-building, but much of the available rhetoric offers the same advice. It will stress, for example, how mutuality, trust, and communications are “key components” to a good partnership.
Good practice will be show-cased and, if you are lucky, bad practice will as well.
As is customary for this topic, you will hear from experts about how partnerships between different organisations are essentially still only as good as the relationships made by those individuals partaking in them. Just as in life – they will tell you – when you first meet a new friend, a work colleague or a companion, you will experience the “getting to know you” phase, then the “making commitments” part of the equation, and so on. Each phase littered with ups and downs along the way.
I think a heavy dose of critiquing of this growing surge of allure towards cross-sector partnering, in the international development space, is usually healthy – mainly because a good majority of what exists in this space is poorly construed, unequally invested in, and inefficiently acted upon. And because, on the whole, people pay lip service to what something such as “commitment” actually means within the context of their organisation partnering another.
Commitment beyond, for example, only investing in the design of a clever new way to pump clean water from a previously neglected source, or in how to use new training techniques to improve the chances of a mother beating the historical odds, in her local and marginalised community, and surviving childbirth. Commitment, too, beyond merely bean counting the money required in order to make such designs work, and reporting back on how many peopled had been trained or how many water filters installed.
Partnership commitments can, and should, be more compelling than being framed around just mechanical project components.
Investing commitment into changing your organisation’s actual behaviour, within the context of a partnership with another entity, is quite a different challenge.
Behaviour change might be subtle at first, and start off with an organisation ceding control over something important to them – such as decision making. Or, it might be a more orchestrated change, focused on the ‘mutuality’ aspect to cross-sector partnerships – shared ambitions, shared resources, shared skills – in a way that actually moves people and their organisations, authentically, towards a new way of managing and conducting themselves.
Across this current fraternity of partnership fora, you hear organisations claiming to “walk the talk” (ie following one’s own preaching to others on issues of responsibility or partnership behaviour). This is often plastic engineered parlance, however it never fails as a motif to provoke a room full of agreeable nodding heads, and so we allow it.
The question remains: how can we move these types of dialogues from sound-bites to action?
In the light of the upcoming SDG commitment to a “partnership” Goal, we must acknowledge that some large-scale cross-sector partnerships are moving positive change agendas forward around the world, and will continue to do so. However, we must also look beyond the structured imperatives of partnering (legal agreements, and the necessary contractual melee of red tape around delivery and money flow) and identify ways of harnessing the less structured.
If you will, how do we harness the imperatives of the heart, akin to the genuine passion which people feel, and which is ignited in response to a particular poverty or environmental injustice they are seeking to tackle?
Simply put, we need to slice through the fug of platitudes and find authenticity, because the heart matters, and because we often overlook the power of the individual, and his or her heart, when it comes to engaging in any form of collaboration, initiative or large-scale partnership.
Let’s try, therefore, to create the space for a dialogue about partnership building that accommodates the perspective of the heart.
In doing so, we will stimulate more creativity and co-operation within our partnerships, in turn allowing ourselves, and our organisations, to be truly more impactful, together, than we are as the sum of our parts.