The Busara Blog
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The Busara Blog

The engagement toolbox

Four major engagements models to think about before any project

By Salim Kombo and Ruth Canagarajah

Photo by on Sigmund on Unsplash

Milestones are a matter of perspective. For parents, five years is critical in the development of a child. It forms the foundation of your child’s learning, physical and emotional growth. Similarly, for new businesses, this milestone is key as statistics indicate that the first four to five years are ‘survival years’. For some animals, five years can be their entire lives.

Long or short, a lot can happen in five years. If one is paying attention, they can observe trends, monitor behavior, make decisions and, in our case, engage in over 500 strategy, research and evaluation engagements. While considering our work over five years of operation we have looked at our engagements and identified four predominant models that they may take. A more detailed report is available here. While we recognize that each engagement has its own struggle and most engagements will involve one or more of these models, we have also found that most engagements can largely be categorized into one of these models.

Each provides a framework for funders, technical actors, partners and other stakeholders to consider when approaching any given engagement. These four models of engagement are:

  • Consultant-driven engagements
  • Client-driven engagements
  • Consortiums
  • Collaborative engagements
  1. Consultant-Driven:

Here, we (the consultant) play the leading role in driving the engagement. This model is preferable for evaluations and technical capacity-building projects. Most of our academic studies also fall under this category as we drive projects alongside Principal Investigators.

One great benefit of this model is that it involves highly tailored interactions with the potential for behaviorally-informed strategy recommendations that partners find directly applicable. These types of engagements also lead to trust-building, repeat business and, if the partner is open to innovation, a constructive challenge to internal approaches.

However, if this model is not carefully managed, consultant-driven engagements can easily become client-driven engagements. Conversely, there can be dependency as a result of an over-reliance on the consultant in the project structure, which limits partner capacity-building and ownership.

Recommendations:

  • While engaging clients, it is important to incorporate behavioral mechanisms to reduce potential challenges. Managing something as simple as information overload while communicating with clients will go a long way to achieving desired results.
  • Joint deliverables are a great way to bring about a higher level of integration and partner involvement. By making the partner responsible to the donor for delivery of some components of the engagement we can ensure a higher level of ownership of the engagement goals from all parties involved.

2. Client-Driven:

These are engagements where we are involved as a support institution to assist and deliver the implementation of a program. These are often projects where we have been engaged to deliver on a specific component of a larger project. The most productive client-driven engagements occur when the partner engages us in the initial stages of their efforts. Funding for these projects can come from multiple sources but very often, these projects are funded by the organizations themselves.

This model offers a wide array of expertise and resources, which both speeds up the process and allows us to focus on behavioral science. It allows for a natural embedding which is great for communication, feedback loops and trust-building.

It is very important to get buy-in from partners with these engagements. In the absence of buy-in, a lot of energy can be spent on activities and outputs that are irrelevant to the intent of the project because the partner is driven by internal needs. These engagements can also be easily over-scoped, leading to resources and impact being spread thin.

Recommendations:

  • Clear partner expectations in these models need to be established upfront, which should include an MoU between the parties to lay out priorities and key deliverables.
  • Designing a menu of project components will help allow the partner to understand the possible trade-offs for their decisions as they try to respond to emerging needs.

3. Consortiums:

Consortiums involve multiple partners. They tend to be at least one year engagements that help build relationships for a larger scope than most projects. In a consortium, we can either be the lead organization or one of a number of organizations working towards achieving the project objectives.

Consortiums ensure there are diverse skills and resource pools working towards the same goal. This brings about better understanding of context and economies of scale which, in turn, improves project implementation. Consortiums with many partners can also be an opportunity to develop further engagements.

A key challenge of this engagement model is its strength. Having too many partners may negatively impact meaningful engagement and lead to a lack of flexibility in timelines and funds. In situations where the technical lead does not have its own grant allocation, every activity may end up being either up for negotiation or just seen as non-essential. Hierarchical structures can limit efficiency, especially in flows of communication.

Recommendations:

  • Have clear and realistic expectations of each partner when entering the consortium, allowing for more genuine relationships.
  • Factor in contingencies in funding structures and timeline expectations. Activities in consortiums inevitably change and/or take much longer than anticipated.
  • Technical leads should have their own sub-grants to manage instead of being line items within other partners’ budgets.

4. Collaborations:

Collaborative projects are designed to have an equal contribution from both partners, though this does not always turn out to be the case. For a collaboration to function properly, it should be designed with the aim of taking advantage of the respective partner’s strengths to achieve a clearly outlined project goal. There should be shared ownership of the vision, outputs and process.

Some of the benefits of a good collaboration include providing a grounded understanding of local context, leveraging sectoral expertise, achieving buy-in and supporting optimal implementation through sectoral expertise. Frequent close collaboration means that communication channels are more effective, creating a sense of ownership of the outputs by the partner. These close collaborations also often enhance trust between us and our partners, leading to opportunities for subsequent engagements.

Informal interactions, different work cultures, scope creeping and shifting priorities are some of the stumbling blocks that can make a collaboration more challenging than fruitful. Collaborations often require ideas and approaches to be combined, which — when unsuccessfully done — results in approaches, products, or solutions born of compromise which fail to fully meet the expectations of either partner.

Recommendations:

  • Building trust should be at the core if any collaboration is to work. This is achieved by working with the partner in an open and transparent way. It is best to plan and think through the purpose of all interactions beforehand.
  • Collaborations need to be based on the outset on a clear understanding of partners’ respective capabilities to successfully implement any plans made. Further, these plans and partners should be adaptable to changing environments.
  • There should be a clear vision of what success means. A results-based framework can be a key tool to help ensure that the partnership is yielding the desired results.
  • Expectations around budgetary expenditure should also be established early in the project and contingencies should be included in budgetary processes in order to anticipate changes the project may experience.

While every engagement will be different, having these models in mind will give various stakeholders the tools they need to quickly analyze and understand which approach may work best towards achieving the goals. It will support a more detailed perspective of funding engagement models and provide foresight into the challenges faced by each approach, meaning that they can be planned for and perhaps even avoided.

Last December, we collated a set of recommendations for funders in East Africa, specifically around governance and capacity building. Read them here. This article is the second in a series of reflective thought pieces on our work in applying behavioral science in East Africa and the lessons we’ve learned during our 5+ years of operation. Look out for our piece next month on running research programmes to motivate CSO engagement.

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