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What is ‘effective’ partnering? Who decides?

By Ros Tennyson, Director, Partnership Brokers Association

Multi-stakeholder partnerships for sustainable development can range widely (wildly?) in their characteristics and aspirations. Borrowing from the language of Complexity Theory, partnerships can be simple, complicated, complex and / or chaotic. And sometimes they are all four at the same time!

Maybe it doesn’t matter, so long as those partnering and those impacted by the partnership’s activities believe that the outcomes, outputs and impacts have genuine value. Crucially, that the value is greater (by being more far-reaching, innovative, influential and / or sustainable) than it could have been in comparison with any non-partnership-based alternative.

But how does one assess ‘value’? What types of data – hard (eg numbers) or soft (eg behaviour change) – are regarded as valid? Is an assessment of ‘value’ the same as an assessment of ‘effectiveness’?

And who knows best whether or not a partnership is being or has been ‘effective’? How is ‘effectiveness’ best understood, measured and communicated? And, perhaps as importantly, who has the right to decide which partnerships are ‘effective’?  Those who are benefitting? Those who are partnering? Those who provide funding? Those who are not benefitting, partnering or providing funding?

Some key elements that could / should be considered in assessing ‘effectiveness’ (in descending order of obviousness):

  • Measurable impact on target population / issue (visible effectiveness)
  • Positive influence on the institutions / entities / constituencies directly or indirectly involved (institutional effectiveness)
  • Persistence (especially in the face of resistance) in innovating, pushing boundaries, taking risks in order to achieve breakthrough (innovative effectiveness)
  • Contribution to a sustainable development ‘eco-system’ that has the capacity to learn from mistakes, absorb lessons and change practice (systemic effectiveness)
  • Building new leadership, evolving fit for purpose models, giving others credit, being willing to let go and moving on when the time is right (invisible effectiveness)

Thought of in these terms, the concept of ‘partnering effectiveness’ is a challenging beast – where ‘effectiveness’ is layered and not well understood, clearly articulated or systematically assessed.

The core question may, however, be quite a simple one: how do we avoid the various parties measuring partnership effectiveness simply on the basis of whether (or not) they got what they (thought they) wanted?

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