This article presents learning about multi-stakeholder partnerships drawn from the work of the Synergos Institute, a global non-profit organization working to reduce poverty and advance social justice. The lessons come out of our experience with four initiatives: The Partnership for Child Nutrition (India), the African Public Health Leadership and Systems Innovation Initiative (Namibia), the Aboriginal Leadership Initiative (Canada), and the Agricultural Transformation Agency (Ethiopia). The ten learnings are:
Not all issues are appropriate for a partnership approach. Proper issue analysis is essential to determine if others need to be involved. Generally, the more complex an issue is, the greater the need to bring together diverse actors to collaborate.
Partnerships are often born out of political will. A legitimate invitation is essential. Avoiding pressure to move prematurely to action and addressing questions of purpose, power, and success criteria early on increase the likelihood of later success.
An early research and analysis phase allows partnerships to diagnose issues correctly (situation analysis), to assess the interests of those to be involved (stakeholder analysis) and to develop the right approach (process design).
“Command and control” leadership may be less effective in situations requiring stakeholders from different backgrounds to collaborate. Multi-stakeholder partnerships may be guided best by “bridging leaders” who are able to translate meaning across sectors, to build trust, to co-create with others and to generate collective action.
Working in partnership often involves letting go of cherished beliefs, altering worldviews, and relinquishing control. Helping partners shift how they think about themselves, others, and the world is often the toughest, and least attended to, aspect of partnerships. Enabling partners to let go often creates new space for innovation and collaboration.
Partnerships can often operate at a level divorced from on-the-ground realities as experienced by the people we seek to help. Communities have special insights and problem-solving ingenuity. Engaging communities requires thoughtful attention to address issues of power and social distance.
It is key to clearly articulate a vision for change at scale while at the same time acting in small steps. Synergos has used a prototype – pilot - scale model, which cultivates co-ownership from the government, business and civic leaders/organizations throughout the process.
To bring about broad-based change, Synergos has found it effective to work at multiple levels, targeting effort in three areas: macro level (top leadership, policy), mezzo level (middle management and oversight) and micro level (field delivery).
A key component in achieving change often involves shifting “institutional arrangements,” altering the nature of institutions or the relationship between them in order to unlock new action, release resources, generate innovation and/or to improve responsiveness to citizen/client needs, etc.
It is often key to track both tangible changes on the ground (e.g. income, crop yields, health, etc.) as well as factors that may be less tangible (e.g. institutional arrangements, relationships, changes in attitude.). Each type of change is necessary; considering them alone may not be sufficient to bring about lasting impact.