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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.