Issue 50 - Article 4

Getting better results from partnership working

May 9, 2011
Rachel Houghton

Partnerships are about relationships. The purpose of partnership is ‘to achieve together what we could not achieve alone’, and working in partnership requires those involved to practice a set of principles that create trust, equity and mutual accountability. In this way, partnership becomes a framework for ‘how we do business together’; it is less determined by the structure of the relationship than by the practice of certain behaviours. What is important is that risks and benefits are shared, and that the partnership is co-created.[1] When organisations work successfully together, change can occur at a faster pace and be more effective as trust is generated, expertise and resources are pooled, learning is fostered, common issues are tackled collectively and duplication is more easily avoided. This takes time and commitment.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that working in partnership in emergency contexts is challenging, particularly as values such as speed and independence are prized. Yet as the scale, frequency and complexity of emergencies increase, so too does the need to deploy a much broader range of skills, knowledge and approaches. This is compounded by recent tendencies to ‘stretch’ humanitarianism to include preparedness, disaster risk reduction (DRR) and recovery. All of this implies that multi-stakeholder/multi-sector responses will be increasingly necessary; indeed, efforts to work in these kinds of partnerships are already growing. This has been influenced by the humanitarian reform agenda (see following article by Christine Knudsen) and by associated challenges such as the economic crisis and climate change.

However, progress with humanitarian reform has been slow, including in regard to humanitarian organisations’ ability to work together. Despite the development of the Principles of Partnership, questions are often raised about how to operationalise them. This is complicated by the fact that agencies use the term, and understand and approach partnership, differently. There are even differences within agencies between HQ and field staff. In addition, there is mounting appreciation of the need to engage other stakeholders across the spectrum of humanitarian action in order to tackle the challenges presented by the changing humanitarian landscape, such as the private sector, environmentalists and climate scientists.


While the imperative for greater and better partnership seems clear, the question is how to achieve it. Quite a lot is already happening, but little learning is being generated. As one commentator observed: ‘More learning about partnerships will help – i.e. detailed and critical discussions about processes, not simply the “didn’t-we-do-well” PR stuff’ typical of aid organisations and donors.[2]

This article focuses on three essential elements of effective partnering. It presents some practical tips to help organisations structure and manage their partnerships better – not only to deliver better results, but also to generate better relationships (which themselves tend to lead to better results). It draws on three case examples: the collaborative Emergency Capacity Building project (ECB; see later article by Matt Bannerman, Md. Harun Or Rashid and Kaiser Rejve) and two post-tsunami partnerships, one between the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the American Red Cross (ARC), and another between World Vision Canada and Zenon Environmental Inc. (now owned by General Electric).

Key Message 1: Partnerships require ‘brokering’

If partnership is about relationships, then it follows that personnel capacity is critical. Too often, partnerships are seen as a matter of good intentions rather than of necessary skills.[3] For an organisation committed to building its partnering capacity, this means paying attention to the skills and attitudes of the people it recruits, as well as improving the capacity of current staff through training and staff development. World Vision, for example, is putting partnering at its core: in the next 3–5 years it plans to invest in training 1,000 local staff to be ‘partnership brokers’. To do this it has invested in a partnership unit to help develop frameworks and guidelines.

Why? Because multi-stakeholder/multi-sector partnerships are complex. They depend upon the establishment of good working relationships between people from different organisations and cultures, often with different values, interests and expectations. They therefore take time, effort, commitment and resources, not only to establish them, but also to nurture and maintain them.

The concept of the partnership broker is largely new to the humanitarian sector.[4] Partnership brokers can be internal (i.e. from one of the partnering organisations) or external (an individual or intermediary organisation appointed by the partnership to build or develop certain aspects of it). Brokers can play different roles. They are often involved in scoping, building and establishing partnerships, and therefore in the critical processes of consultation and consensus-building. They are also often involved with review and learning, including about the process of partnership working. Depending on how partnership activities are managed, they may also be involved in facilitating and supporting the partnership over time.

One of the factors critical to the success of the five-year, post-tsunami Green Recovery Partnership between WWF and the ARC, set up to ensure that tsunami recovery activities maintained and enhanced healthy ecosystems,[5] was the continual provision of leadership and mentoring by those with responsibility for the partnership. These staff members came from the participating organisations and could therefore be called ‘internal brokers’. They helped to build consensus and maintain enthusiasm for the vision and objectives of the partnership; moderated divergent expectations and understandings; sustained joint decision-making; and alleviated the effects of frontline staff turnover. It took two years of partnership capacity-building by the brokers to support this new way of working.[6]

Cross-sector partnerships such as that between WWF and the ARC require particular efforts to understand diverse drivers and motivations. This was also the case with the partnership between Zenon Environmental Inc., which specialises in water filtration systems, and World Vision Canada. This partnership focused on installing and maintaining 54 water filtration systems in IDP camps, schools and medical facilities in post-tsunami India.  The partnership was not always smooth, especially in the early days, when it was ad hoc and was only maintained by the perseverance of key individuals. In particular, communications – between partner organisations and externally – necessitated careful attention. Because of the different language and mindset of each sector the potential for misunderstanding and mistrust was high, especially in the high-pressured immediate response phase.[7]

Similarly, one of the lessons from the ECB project, a five-year collaborative capacity-building initiative with the goal of improving humanitarian preparedness and response,[8] is that country-level consortia require ongoing support. ECB employs full-time ‘Field Facilitators’ to provide this support to its five consortia, which are essentially multi-stakeholder, multi-sector partnerships. The initiative is learning that the skills of this person are critical, and require much more than a capacity for project administration and coordination. This is because brokers operate as process managers; they are leaders, but leaders who downplay traditional leadership roles and facilitate and catalyse instead. This requires self-awareness and a well-developed skill set, including negotiation, active listening, empathy and conflict resolution.[9] If humanitarian organisations are to get better at partnership working, they must try to better understand, value and develop the role of the partnership broker.

Key Message 2: Learning supports partnership working

Partnerships also require enabling and supportive organisations. Fundamentally, being ‘partnership-ready’ requires a whole-organisation approach. One of the critical aspects of this is the development of fit-for-purpose learning frameworks. Whilst working in chaotic, stressful environments means that ‘mistakes’ are more rather than less likely, the persistent repetition of flawed approaches is not inevitable if learning frameworks are developed and applied. Moreover, having the courage to be transparent about, and learn from, what went less well is essential, particularly if we are to build evidence for what works and what does not in terms of partnership working.  

Establishing a means of credibly measuring, reviewing and documenting the partnership – both in terms of results as well as process – is essential, particularly in contexts where staff may be averse to working in partnership. Some useful questions to ask include:

  • How do you know if the partnership has achieved/is achieving its aims?
  • How can partners assess whether the partnership has delivered real value for the partners?
  • Is it possible to prove that the partnership approach is better than other alternatives?
  • What is the evidence that outcomes from partnership activities will have an impact over the longer term?

Two approaches that WWF/ARC used to foster mutual learning and advance the goal of the programme were the co-location of staff and a collaborative review of ARC-funded projects using the Environmental Stewardship Review developed by WWF. These approaches helped staff from both organisations to learn about each other’s culture, language and motivations, and enabled WWF to translate environmental conservation techniques designed for large-scale, longer-term ecosystem management into practices appropriate for disaster reconstruction. This was seen as vital to the overall success of the project. Critically, it helped to maintain the partnership process itself.

Key Message 3: Prepare well – partnership management structures and the partnership agreement  

Other partnership-ready investments include performance management systems and key performance indicators to reward partnership endeavours. They can also include partnership management structures such as cross-functional partnering units, as evidenced by the World Vision example cited earlier. These units can take responsibility for various activities, including the development of organisational partnering strategies and guidelines. This could help to reduce the partnership burden on overwhelmed field staff: as speed so often undermines collaboration, a lesson from all cases is that attention in headquarters or at the regional level makes partnership possible at the country level. ECB agencies came to this conclusion following attempts to respond jointly to the 2009 earthquakes in West Java and West Sumatra. The ECB Indonesian Consortium faced challenges in funding and resource use, including joint decision-making and how to allocate resources for joint operations; managing the relationship between new emergency staff and existing staff; and communications.

In this instance the ECB global project team – a unit that helps to facilitate and coordinate the wider ECB partnership – took responsibility for developing a ‘Readiness Assessment Protocol’ (RAP) in collaboration with the ECB consortia. The RAP is intended to assist ECB consortia to outline expectations around joint preparedness and response. It gives the Field Facilitator a mechanism for assessing current readiness capacity and provides a stepped approach to developing collaborative ways of working. The RAP represents a negotiated process to improve joint working.

Typically, partnership commitments are jointly developed – a process often facilitated by a partnership broker – and recorded in some kind of partnership agreement. When money is involved there will also be an MoU, and some partnerships utilise ToRs.  The difference between these documents and a partnership agreement is that partnership agreements go beyond traditional obligations: they imply the importance of process, including the development of a common language, and include not only the aims and objectives of the partnership and the management activities and funding frameworks, but also issues related to governance and accountability, learning, communications protocols (including brand usage agreements) and grievance mechanisms, and strategies for sustaining outcomes. They are tools to help build trust and maintain the vision and the spirit of partnership working.


Partnership working requires time and commitment, including real resources. This makes it a political matter: senior leadership is critical if organisations are to be partnership-ready. This is because partnership involves finding new ways of working effectively together to find solutions to complex humanitarian problems. With the appropriate investment of people, time and money, supplemented by a conscious attempt to capture and apply learning, partnerships have the potential to provide effective approaches to humanitarian crises.


Rachel Houghton recently became the Global Coordinator for the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network. She was formally ECB’s Sector Partnerships Manager. Special thanks to Amanda George (BRC), Anita van Breda (WWF), David Hockaday (ECB), Joanne Burke (HFP) and Mike Wisheart (WVi) for their insightful comments on the first draft of this article. Cartoons by Guy Venables, copyright IBLF and published in The Partnering Toolbook, available from



[1] This is broadly in line with the approach of the Partnership Brokering Project: ( See

[2]  Personal communication between Amanda George and John Twigg as part of Amanda’s research for her dissertation ‘Bridging the Divide: An Analysis of the Institutional Barriers to the Consideration of the Environment in Humanitarian Disaster Recovery’.

[3] Peter Senge, The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable Future (Cambridge, MA: Society for Organisational Learning, 2008).

[4]  See for more information on partnership brokering.

[5]  See

[6]  Anita Van Breda and Bob Laprade, ‘Reducing Risk and Vulnerability: An Environmental and Humanitarian Reconstruction Partnership’. This can be found on the website listed above.

[7] Adapted from a World Vision case study on engaging with the private sector: ‘Co-creation of a village-level water filtration system’.

[8] ECB involves six INGOs (CARE, CRS, Mercy Corps, Oxfam GB, Save the Children and World Vision) working through four country-level consortia in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Indonesia and Niger, and one regional consortium in the Horn of Africa. See

[9] The Partnership Brokering Project defines four key skill sets for brokers: facilitation, negotiation, coaching and reviewing. See


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