Start up is half the battle

Ten Lessons on multi-stakeholder partnerships, Lesson 2

Okay, so you’re not going to go it alone — the development challenge is too complex for one organization to solve. Let’s get started…

Through long experience, we have learned that the way a partnership begins can often powerfully shape the way an initiative emerges over time. It is far better to give time and thought on the front-end than to try to fix things later.

the way a partnership begins can often powerfully shape the way an initiative emerges over time

We have often felt significant pressure to “just get on with it” and to move quickly to action. Over time, we have come to appreciate that the eventual action will be more effective if we are sure that fundamental issues have been addressed first. In all of our major partnership projects, there has been a significant gestation period before action on the ground happens where key questions get sorted out and trust is built.

Each of our partnerships originated as a result of political will, in contexts where there is public pressure, citizen demand, and energy for change. In many instances such demands end up on the desk of senior government or civic leaders, who become champions for change and who then invite us in to catalyze action.

Without an invitation, or lacking the stamp of support from legitimate leaders within a society, we simply could not operate. In Namibia, for example, we were invited in by the Prime Minister, who was alarmed by the skyrocketing maternal mortality rate in his country. In Ethiopia, the initiative was likewise invited in by the Prime Minister, who sought to bring about rapid change in the agriculture sector. In Canada, it was the Deputy Minister of Justice who sought to find new solutions to the issue of First Nation-Government relations, reacting to mounting political pressure to do so.

Beyond the high-level championships, our partnerships often begin with a core group of five to six partners who begin framing the basic contours of a partnership. In the Canada program, we referred to this group as the “initiating partners” who not only gave the initial spark to a major initiative but who also sought over time to widen the circle of partnership to a range of other actors. The initiating partners group in Canada, comprised of First Nations, two levels of Government, and Synergos, played a sophisticated, and often challenging role in the project by holding the initiative together over time, seeking out missing partners, and overcoming challenges as they arose. This team developed an extraordinary level of trust, which formed the glue that enabled the initiative to hold together through the myriad challenges it faced. In fact, if we peel the layers of any effective partnership, we are likely to find a core set of people who trust one another, share values, and who care for one another.

In the early stages of the Canada project, and other such partnerships, the initiating partners group had to answer a host of formative questions, such as:

  • What ultimately are we trying to achieve?
  • What is success and how will we measure it?
  • Who will determine what success is?
  • What are the underlying intentions and motivations of key stakeholders
  • What voices need to be represented?
  • What principles and values will guide us?
  • How will we make decisions?
  • How will we deal with power differences?
  • What are our resource requirements and where will resources come from
  • What is our aspiration with respect to scale?
  • What do we know, and what do we need to know, about the situation we are addressing and the stakeholders we are engaging?

Coming up with thoughtful responses to these, and other key questions, early on will help guide a partnership through the challenging and fragile moments of conception. We have learned that answers to such questions often change over time as a partnership emerges and adapts to new situations, so fundamental-level conversations will need to be held at many junctures during a partnership.

Ten Lessons on Multi-stakeholder Partnerships draws from Synergos’ experience helping to create sustainable solutions to complex development problems at scale.

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