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Strategy & Approach

Dimensions that Define a Partnership

Dimensions that define a partnership

Every partnership in the world, regardless of its size, specific topic or country of operation, has the same mission statement: to work together more effectively and efficiently accomplish a common objective through shared resources, shared risk and shared responsibility.

Implementing that simple mission, however, can get confusing. These days there are partnerships everywhere: business partnerships, public-private partnerships and multi-stakeholder partnerships, as well as collaborations, co-opetition, dialogues and many other forms of working together.

One of the challenges of understanding the myriad different forms and structures of partnership is that the lexicon and taxonomy has not caught up with the practice. Many partnerships that involve multiple stakeholders for the purpose of achieving a common good are often referred to as public-private partnerships or PPPs. This is often the case even when there is no “public” entity involved, such as business partnerships with NGOs.

The World Bank, which defines a PPP as “a long-term contract between a private party and a government entity, for providing a public asset or service, in which the private party bears significant risk and management responsibility.” As such, they categorize partnerships based on a single continuum, defined by the extent of private sector participation. This is largely applicable to infrastructure and utility privatization through bilateral agreements between a government and a private sector partner, and does not cover several of the dimensions we explore here.

Here we look at possible dimensions of a partnership, as well as some of the factors and considerations that should be taken into account when creating or evaluating a partnership:

  1. Number of partners: The dynamics of bilateral versus multilateral partnerships are very different. How many partners do you need in your partnership? A bilateral partnership is often relatively simple and predictable, while five or even ten demanding partners can make governance and decision making much more complex. For each potential partner, it is worth asking, “Can the partnership succeed without them?” Some partnerships, such as the Water Resources Group, which spun out of the World Economic Forum after being incubated for more than 3 years, has a 15 member Governing Council, a 9 member Steering Board, and comprises 10 multilateral and bilateral agencies, four private sector Partners and one NGO. The power of these partners is undeniable, but it also requires significant support from its own legal entity, and executive director and a full time secretariat.
  2. Decision-making: Shared decision-making and discretion are key components of a successful partnership. A partnership in which one entity is calling all the shots is usually not a partnership; it is often a contract or subcontract. In this respect, many Public-Private Partnerships or PPPs are just public entities contracting infrastructure delivery to the private sector, while all decision making remains with the government. How will critical decisions be made in your partnership? While not all partnerships can have equal power for all partners, some sort of equity must be considered in order for the partnership to be successful. More on collaborative decision-making and shared discretion here.
  3. Types of stakeholders engaged: It is important to consider which types of stakeholders need to be engaged in a partnership to provide the best chances of success. Will governments need to be engaged as hosts to the partnership? Will a development NGO or international organization be needed to deliver on the ground? It is important to consider not only what a partner brings, but also how they are different – they may have a much higher risk appetite and communicate very differently. Bringing multiple stakeholder groups together also adds complexity to a partnership, as expectations, norms and values vary greatly between public, private and civil society sectors. It may be interesting to engage with the private sector, but they should be engaged for more than just money. For a vertical partnership that seeks to improve a given supply chain, such as the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil, all stakeholders from producers, processors and buyers must be engaged.
  4. Beneficiaries: Partnerships can provide benefits to many stakeholders, from the partners themselves to broader society or the environment. Generally there are benefits to each of the partner organizations, though these need not be the same as the broader outcomes of a partnership, which may be only enjoyed by third parties in the longer term. It is often important for members of a partnership to remember that the end goal is not the partnership itself, especially in the case of multi-stakeholder partnerships on collective goods such as health, education and environment.
  5. Timelines: Some partnerships are set up as fixed-term partnerships, designed to operate for a specific period of time, while others are set to run indefinitely, or until they naturally lose momentum. It is often best to fix timelines and have them associated with review process and exit clauses, allowing all partners to review the health and utility of a partnership on a regular basis.
  6. Deliverables: What is your partnership delivering? Is it a project or a bridge? A campaign or a shared research? Different types of partnerships may deliver very different outputs, from roads and bridges in the case of World Bank PPPs, to policy recommendations or best practices in the case of some multi-stakeholder partnerships. Whether your deliverables are infrastructure or ideas, the style and the governance of the partnership will need to be uniquely adapted.

While each of the above dimensions will define different aspects of the partnership structure and governance, the topic or subject matter is often independent from the process required to make that partnership successful. The nuts and bolts of a partnership for humanitarian relief, social change or climate change (or even a commercial partnership) are surprisingly consistent. While an understanding of the partnership topic can be useful for a partnership broker, it is often not necessary to build and evaluate the process and governance of a healthy partnership.

These dimensions provide a starting point for understanding the potential structure and governance of a partnership. A decision tree or flow chart will be explored as a visual representation to provide a clearer overview in a future post.



The Partnership Journey

After more than 60 years, May 29th 1953 remains the most important date in mountaineering history – at 11:30 AM, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first people to successfully reach the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on earth.

Many before them had failed; some had even died in their attempt. The story of this accomplishment is one of meticulous planning, seamless execution, and most importantly a well matched expedition team of strong and collaborative climbing partners.

Any Partnership is very much like an exploratory expedition, and successful ones bear the characteristics demonstrated in that first Everest ascent. A team was built for conquering a singular goal with many unknowns and a wide range of possible outcomes. In the case of that expedition, army colonel John Hunt was recruited as leader, and like in other partnerships, his job was to lead in the preparation, execution, achievement of a defined goal, and getting his team home safely. At Constellate, we consider these as steps within the “partnership cycle”, which we will explore here in more detail.

For the purpose of simplicity, at Constellate we explore the Partnership Cycle in three phases with a total of just six steps:

  1. Preparation: Mapping and Engaging, which comprise the strategic intent of the partnership;
  2. Adventure: Launching, Checking In, and Course Correcting are operational steps and based on regular feedback loops;
  3. Summiting: Reaching the Summit is critical, but it sometimes needs to be put in perspective. The most important part of an expedition is ultimately the Safe Return, in which partners ensure that they finish the journey stronger and wiser than when they started.

In between each of these stages are Enablers that allow the Partnership to grow from one stage to the next. These can be seen in the connecting arrows below.

An expedition into partnership

Figure 1: The Partnership Journey


The life of a partnership starts well before a signed agreement, and there is a significant amount of thinking that goes into forming a partnership before the first potential partners should be contacted. In mountaineering, planning and preparation will start months and sometimes years in advance. It is critical to invest the time and effort to have clear strategic intent for a partnership, which will set you up for everything that follows.

Mapping: Mapping a partnership is perhaps the most critical step to the ultimate success of a partnership. Long before setting off, most expeditions start with many evenings poring over maps and thinking of possible objectives and ways to meet them. These decisions will be taken with a balanced view of risk, so that they bring the thrills of an adventure, but still present a calculated chance of success. Before assembling a team and finding partners, it is essential to understand the scale and scope of the objective. The same is true of a partnership, in which it is important to understand what success looks like and what you bring to the partnership before lining up partners and signing an agreement.

Engaging: In an expedition, headaches can be avoided – and the chances of success increased – by assembling the right team with the right skill sets and compatible personalities. The same is true in a partnership, and it is important to recognize that the best project managers may not be the best partnership managers. To engage successfully in a partnership, it is important to understand the perspectives of others, so not only is multi-stakeholder experience an asset, but “soft” skills like empathy allow partners to understand different perspectives.

After the right partners with complimentary resources and skills are engaged, the next step is to establish the right systems for communication, governance and accountability. In any successful multi-stakeholder partnership, it is critical that decision-making and accountability are shared across the partners with a sense of equity. A partnership lead may choose their desired partners, but it is equally important that these partners see the benefits of engaging. For this reason, objectives must be refined and agreed upon with all partners engaged. If one partner has full discretion to make unilateral decisions, there is no shared decision-making, and therefore it is not a true partnership.


During the adventure phase of an expedition, it is important to track and measure progress, and equally important to check the maps and make course corrections as appropriate. Sometimes unforeseen obstacles will arise, and the team members must step back and reconsider whether a new course may be necessary to achieve the goals set out.

Launching: In this phase of a partnership, resources are mobilized and the partnership enters its execution phase. It is critical here to remember that these resources include much more than funding, as different partners will be contributing knowledge, expertise, contacts, products and physical resources. This is also when communications strategies, governance structures and accountability systems are put to the test. As the project team is distributed across different partner organizations, the tools used for day-to-day project management, communications and information flow must be shared across organizational boundaries.

Check in: Checking in to assess the progress of a partnership is critical so that outputs and impact can be quantified. As with any other project, it is important to consider how progress will be measured, and for a partnership, this is true for qualitative as well as quantitative metrics. It is important to assess the health of the partnership as well: How well are partnership members communicating? How healthy is the team dynamic? Are there any underlying tensions? Are the governance structures working well?

Correct: Answers to these questions may require course corrections, small tweaks in the way the partnership is running to allow for more efficient and more effective operation. These course corrections and adjustments will provide feedback loops for the management of the partnership, allowing for continuous improvement throughout the adventure phase.


Clearly the objective of a mountaineering expedition is to reach the summit. The same would be the case for a complex partnership: the objective is to achieve a desired outcome. However, just as summiting a mountain can only be considered a success if you return home safely,

A partnership is not yet finished and not necessarily successful just because it has achieved its stated objectives. Before Hillary and Tenzin reached the summit of Everest, there were others who got close. In 1924 George Mallory and Andrew Irvine were last seen still going strong at the Second Step (about 28,140 – 28,300 ft). Many people still wonder if Mallory and Irvine might have been the first to make it to the top of Mount Everest, but as they never made it back down the mountain alive, their potential success remains a mystery.

A “safe return” can mean a number of things, depending on the planning and delivery of a partnership. It may be that the partnership was designed to last for a fixed time period and has a sunset clause, which dictates that it is wound down and closed. It is also possible that a partnership has an option to be renewed and therefore is extended, scaled up or replicated. If the partnership is to be continued, it may do so under the same circumstances, or it may be more formalized and even spun out into a new entity or organization.


Regardless of how one thinks about the future of a partnership after it has achieved its stated objectives, it is important to think through the full partnership cycle up front, and ensure that there is a plan (and the resources) to get home safely after the summit has been achieved.

Part of this process will be a final evaluation of the partnership itself.

  • At the partnership level: Was it a success on all levels? Did it deliver on time and within budget? Are all partners still healthily engaged? Was there collateral damage to one or more of the partner organizations? Would you repeat this expedition with the same partners? With different ones?
  • At the organizational level: What was gained for the organization? What was learned by the organization? How will this learning be used to make future partnerships more successful?
  • At the individual level: How did each team member contribute to the success of failure of the partnership? How can they be encouraged to reflect on their learnings from the partnership?

Just as with a mountaineering expedition, the surest sign of success is not just whether a summit has been reached, but also whether the expedition members would join together as a team to explore other objectives. This is the real difference between a successful partnership built on relationships, and a successful project built on transactional goals. If we wish to embrace transformational partnerships, it will be the partnerships rather than the projects that will make the difference.


Other Partnership Cycle Resources:

There are many versions of the Partnership Cycle out there. The Partnership Brokers Association uses a 12 step cycle (, while The Partnering Initiative uses a similar 12 steps laid out a bit differently ( Others, such at the World Bank ( and the ADB ( only refer to project cycles rather than partnership cycles.