Improving the “return on investment” in partnerships

Blogpost by Joost Guijt

Partnerships can be good ‘value for money’: combining resources, networks and competencies makes it possible to work deeper, broader, more creatively. But this value isn’t for free: it takes time and resources to make the partnership work. As partnerships become more common so does the burden of investing time in new ways of working together. How then to build partnerships more efficiently to make them work more effectively?

The most important thing is to realise that a partnership needs to invest in its internal partnering process. A PPP is a specific kind of relationship, with people from different backgrounds deliberately coming together for a common goal. And like any relationship this takes deliberate effort. To make the process efficient requires a simple structure to zoom in on the most important things that make or break a partnership.

In the PPPLab’s Partnering Process Tool we focus on 7 building blocks for a healthy partnership, with guiding questions. Reflecting on them regularly makes it clear where things are going smoothly and where there are differences in perception between partners on what is and isn’t going well. The figure comes from a PPP where partners independently filled in a simple online questionnaire. For building blocks 3 and 7 there is quite a difference between partners’ perceptions, which was worth probing.

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Inevitably partnerships change, which explains the need for the first two blocks. A recent mid-term review (coming out soon) of the PPPs in the Food Security and Sustainable Development fund (FDOV) discovered that most of the partnerships had changed in the first few years. Some partners dropped out, new ones joined, roles changed. Interestingly and importantly, most partnerships kept their focus on improving conditions for smallholder farmers. Clearly the need and the focus of the partnerships were consolidated in the first years.

Investing in a specific partnership regularly repays itself in the shape of future collaboration, the point of building block 4. One PPP in Myanmar “Sustainable and affordable poultry for all” aims to strengthen the domestic poultry sector to produce affordable, widely available poultry for a large internal market. Two companies De Heus and Belgabroed have a long track record of collaborating in partnerships in many countries. Past time invested in effective ways of working together here allowed them to readily draw in other partners into a well functioning partnership.

Whatever form it takes, some kind of structured and regular review of how things are going within the partnership is a necessary investment in efficiency. External tools and partnership brokers can be well worth the investment and an organisation like the Partnership Brokers Association is geared to providing minimal, necessary support.

At the end of the day, though, people invest time in a partnership because its meant to be a better way to deliver on a common goal. That’s why its important to connect internal processes with overall progress. A smooth partnership is likely to be a more effective partnership: the real justification of investing in the partnering process.