Tuesday 9 July 2013

Partnership Series (II) - Defining the Term 'Partnership '

by Ken Caplan, Director, BPD

Because our terminology shapes our expectations that then shape our behaviour, over the last several years, BPD – and others, of course – has grappled with the need to find some kind of definition for the term 'partnership'. As noted in the last blog, the term is used widely to refer to all kinds of relationships. The pressure is admittedly strong for organisations across the public, private, funder and civil society sectors to use such terminology to send a variety of signals.

To be clear, whilst a spirit of working well together is certainly important for such arrangements, we have not generally used the term to refer to regulated investment or traditional
BPD partnership mapping exercise
infrastructure or construction projects between the public and private sectors as two signatories to a contract. Partnership for us is more about the looser more iterative, more inclusive, more horizontal, unregulated multi-stakeholder arrangements to which the fairly constant calls for more “working together” seem to be referring. The term, however, is misleading – working in partnership suggests harmony whereby the reality is more often than not a lot of hard work.

After much soul searching and head scratching, we decided a few years ago to adopt and adapt someone else’s definition. The one that continues to resonate with us most was first developed by Simon Zadek when he was with AccountAbility, as follows:

  • Partnerships involve two or more organizations that enter into a temporary or initially time-bound arrangement: To take advantage of synergistic goals and opportunities to address particular issues or deliver specified tasks that single organizations cannot accomplish on their own as effectively...

This part is a fairly common description and offers few surprises, representing mutual need and mutual obligation as well as hopefully some sense that a particular partner is the best (or even only) option to help us do what needs doing.

The more interesting part of the definition, however, is the second bit:

  • ...whereby individual organizations cannot purchase the appropriate resources or competencies purely through a market transaction.

What we have seen over the years is a significant number of "partnerships" that in reality behave as contracts – with one partner buying the services of another and calling the relationship a partnership.
We see this across the board with all permutations of relationship among the public, private, civil society and donor/funder stakeholders. (In fact, relationships between northern NGOs and southern NGOs, and between donors/ funders and NGOs are perhaps the most problematic as the language rarely seems to match up with the practice.)

We have no doubt that many partnerships will require money changing hands and some form of paperwork that binds the partners. From working with dozens and dozens of partnerships over the years, we’ve seen that such transactional arrangements tend to dominate the discussions between partners – yes, generally speaking the one with the money calls the shots or dictates the terms. The paying party generally (though perhaps with some timid negotiations from the contracted party) determines what the deliverables will be and their timeframes, sets out the penalties for non-delivery, and then takes ownership over and credit for the deliverables once they have been completed.

Through various partnership building tools and frameworks, BPD has sought to focus more on the mutual need and mutual obligation found in the definition above. Crazy as it sounds, we have usually encouraged partnerships in their early stages to put off the discussions of finance for as long as they can. Once introduced, the finances then distort every conversation thereafter more towards a discussion of short-term activities and away from longer term goals, towards important but overly long discussions about procedures and day-to-day management, and reporting that is input-output rather than outcomes or impacts focused. Putting off these financial negotiations might allow partners to dedicate more time to forging a robust relationship - focusing more on strategic objectives, partner incentives, other essential resources and clarifying roles and responsibilities.

Either we need new words to describe what we actually have in place or we need new ways to make partnerships value the contributions of all partners…

Next time: Partnerships and permanence…

1 comment:

  1. Most so called partnerships between south and north NGOs in true sense are contracts where the one with the funds pays the other with no reliable source of funding to implement and deliver certain outputs. Normally power relationship is sloped where the one with funds calls the shorts. It will be difficult for true partnership in development work as long as the bond in the relationships is financial.