Exploring Partnerships for sustainable development: definitions, types and effectiveness
by Stella Pfisterer and Andrea da Rosa
Societies are constantly searching on how to efficiently build up appropriate organizational forms that balance the interests of different actors. New forms of governance - from governance without government, self-regulation to collaborative governance – dominate discussions on how to effectively govern societies. In general, society is often depicted in the form of a triangle with three distinct, but related ‘spheres’. Three primary institutions can be distinguished in the triangle: the state, the market and the civil society.
Partnerships between public sector, private sector and civil society have become increasingly prominent during the past years. The three sectors are acknowledged to be interdependent, and the objectives of one sector can often only be achieved in partnership with participants from the other sectors. Partnerships are supposed to create a ‘collaborative advantage’ by generating additional knowledge and resources. From this perspective, results for sustainable development can be achieved that benefit all parties involved; results that could not have been achieved on an individual basis. However, effective partnership management faces a variety of challenges. Partnerships operate in complex environments.
Firms, governmental organizations and civil society organizations often speak different languages, have diverse interests, strategies, and operate in a context of specific organizational cultures.
The challenge for defining partnerships are the variations in the roles and dependencies of societal actors, which make it difficult to come up with a clear cut definition for partnerships. However, all definitions of partnerships have in common that they express the fact that partnerships are more than simple transactional relationships or multi-stakeholder consultations and encompass a degree of shared vision or shared goals and joint decision-making. Some examples:
Glasbergen (2007) defines partnerships as:
“collaborative arrangements in which actors from two or more spheres of society (state, market and civil society) are involved in a non-hierarchical process through which these actors strive for sustainability goals”.
Brinkerhoff, 2002:14) gives a more procedural definition:
“dynamic relationship among diverse actors, based on mutually agreed objectives, pursued through a shared understanding of the most rational division of labour based on the comparative advantage of each partner. Partnership encompasses mutual influence, mutual respect, equal participation in decision making, mutual accountability and transparency”.
Sullivan and Skelcher (2002) highlight the nature and role of partnerships as “semi-autonomous organizational vehicles through which governmental, private, voluntary and community sector actors engage in the process of debating, deliberating and delivering public policy at the regional and local level”.
Instrumental definitions as developed by the OECD (2006) emphasize partnership characteristics such as voluntary arrangement, the share of risks and benefits, and the leverage of financial and non-financial resources of partners.
Partnerships go through different stages often referred to a lifecycles. We can identify four main partnership stages:
Partnerships are formed when several stakeholders encounter an urgent problem which they feel they cannot or should not approach on their own. During the initiation stage, often a lead agency brings together participants who define a common problem and get acquainted with each other.
During the partnership building stage, stakeholders become partners; they develop a common vision, define objectives and develop action plans how to achieve the objectives. In the partnership building phase, the partners also set up agreements on their roles and contributions.
During the implementation stage, the focus turns to programme and activities as well as to maintenance and routinization of structures and processes. In the transition from the building stage to the implementation stage, disappointed and dissatisfied participants often leave the partnership (Roloff, 2008) due to implementation problems and demand shifts in coordination between the actors.
Partnership institutionalization or extinction
After positive implementation of activities and positive experiences of cooperating with each other, it is expected that the partners have developed a considerable level of trust in each other. Many activities and procedures have become institutionalized throughout the process.
Types of partnerships
Different types of international partnerships:
- PDP: Product development Partnership firms work together to develop innovative products that answer to certain needs in society
- PPP: Public-Private Partnership; the government works together with firms (and NGO’s) to produce public goods more efficiently
- PnP: Profit-nonProfit partnership; firms and civic organization work together to develop new business models that are needed in society
- TPP: tripartite partnerships; multi-stakeholder platforms in which stakeholders work together to tackle a specific issue in society.
Success of partnerships
For the development of new cross-sector partnerships it is required to know what the essence of successful partnership projects is. Which factors influence success or failure of partnerships is highly related to the specific context where partnerships operate.
Several factors are crucial for successful partnerships:
- Recognition that the problem cannot be solved by only one of the partners.
- Shared understanding on the cause of the societal problem: whose responsibility is it, which stakeholders should be involved, what would be their potential contribution?
- Pragmatism: trust is neither a necessary precondition, nor a sole ingredient for partnership
- success. A partnership demonstrates that cooperation between sectors is possible. Continuous learning: share expertise and learn from each other.
- Institutionalization: the partnership must be embedded in the individual organisations;
- moreover it should be represented on a strategic level.
- Management of expectations: be open about your own interests and curious on the interests of the partner(s).
- Good governance: properly distribute the power within partnerships.
The top five critical success factors for effective partnerships are:
- Clarity of roles, responsibilities, goals and “ground rules”
- Clear understanding of mutual benefits
- Clear communication, shared planning and decision making
- Good leadership
- A clear vision of the objective
Governance and management
The (governance) structure of partnerships is most effective when it is flexible enough to leave room for renegotiation and at the same time robust enough to cope with dynamics related to organizational changes or the institutional environment. Yet, trust building is an important component to safeguard flexibility. In any case, a reference framework with clarity of roles and responsibilities for all partners and stakeholders involved in the partnership is necessary.
- Almost every partnership is characterised by power imbalances between the partners. Although partnerships develop based on overlapping goals, there is much potential for conflict:
- Poor communication or no communication around issues of importance.
- Lack of understanding on why or how decisions have been made.
- Roles and responsibilities that have been determined without consultation.
- Allocation of resources. Scarce resources will prompt competition.
- Conflicting values: personality clashes.
- Leadership problems, including inconsistent, missing, heavy-handed or uninformed leadership.
Ensure that partnership partners develop a common understanding on threats and opportunities resulting from the institutional environment where the partnership operates. The partnership might adopt a more flexible and pragmatic approach to address external factors. Hence, it is wise to make a more elaborated first scan of four dimensions (institutional distance; cultural distance; strategic distance; political or power distance) that can create (real and perceived) gaps between the participating actors, before the actual partnerships is enacted.
Also during the partnership, changing conditions in sectors and countries (e.g. political changes) have to be taken into constant consideration. Their implications on the direct partnership performance and long term intervention need to be carefully discussed and communicated.