How can we assess the value of working in partnerships?


Tiina Pasanen (Overseas Development Institute) shares her reflections from the 2016 'M&E on the Cutting Edge' Conference Partnering for Success, and asks, how do we learn what type of partnerships work well, under what conditions and in what contexts?

‘Most partnerships don’t really work that well.’ Among all the success stories, this was one message that resounded as I headed home after a conference on Partnering for Success.

But if they’re so difficult to get right, why are we bothering?

In international development, we work in partnerships all the time, believing that doing so increases the positive impact of our work. Working with local actors, for example, is expected to foster a sense of local ownership and therefore improve project sustainability. It’s also assumed that, as we share with and learn from each other, we fill the gaps in our own knowledge, capacity or skills.

But does this actually happen if most partnerships ‘don’t really work that well’? Perhaps it’s time to admit that we don’t spend enough time unpacking our assumptions about partnerships and (systematically) assessing whether it’s really the best way to achieve our project outcomes.

So how do we learn what type of partnerships work well, under what conditions and in what contexts? Here are six reflections from the conference:

1. Be clear about the purpose of the partnership

Calling a relationship a ‘partnership’ doesn’t make it one. If we pay a local organisation to collect data for us, then we’re talking about service delivery, not partnership.

And so, while partnerships come in all shapes and sizes – depending on who’s involved, why and what they aim to achieve from the relationship – we can identify some common features. For instance, having a common vision, sharing both risks and benefits, having a sense of ‘co-creation’, and contributions from all parties. And it’s important to acknowledge – and appreciate – that money is just one kind of contribution. 

Not all partnerships are (or should be) aimed at delivering development projects in the best or most cost-effective way. Working in a partnership can be a normative thing, the value or aim in itself. But this should be made clear from the start as we all benefit from entering partnerships with a clear rationale.

2. Don’t assume ‘nice’ partnerships mean better partnerships

It would be easy to assume – and desirable to believe – that working in ‘nice’, ‘friendly’ partnerships improves programme outcomes. But this isn’t necessarily the case. It can be all too easy to become stuck in our comfort zones if partners don’t challenge each other or bring up awkward or unpleasant issues.

Which is not to say that we should be looking for difficult partners. Rather, if we only work with people who always agree with us, we might be missing opportunities for learning or systemic change.

Collaborating with surprising actors and not the usual suspects, might lead to exciting and unexpected outcomes. And sometimes, collaborating outside of the ‘usual suspects’ is critical to achieving the programme goals.

3. What are we measuring?

Before thinking of ways to assess whether working in a partnership increases the impact of our work, we need to think about how we assess or measure partnerships. Are we measuring the partnership or the partners? Or both?

All the assessment tools I saw at the conference were self-assessment forms and scorecards. These could be turned into nice visualisation tools (such as charts and diagrams) to highlight gaps, trends and differences. For example PPPLab is developing an assessment tool and Catholic Relief Services is using scorecards to reflect – not to rate – how the partnerships are working on annual basis.

And, while all these tools seemed useful for what they were set out to do – self-reflection – I think we could do more.

4. Triangulate perception data with more objective indicators

One way to go beyond self-reflection and to get a sense of whether our assumptions about partnerships are valid, is to triangulate perception data with more objective measures and indicators. For instance, we could look at whether all partners are represented in major decision-making bodies, or whether the decisions made reflect the views of all the partners or just one. Here are some more sample indicators.

5. Linking partnerships to project outcomes

Often evaluations of partnerships focus on performance and effectiveness at the output level – that is, whether a partnership achieved the outputs it set out to do. But they often don’t address the question of whether a partnership model was truly the best – the most appropriate, cost-effective, or sustainable – way to achieve results.

This isn’t a new challenge but it’s a persistent one (see this book from 2009).

6. How can we assess this in a more rigorous way?

What could be a counterfactual or a comparison point? Taking an experimental approach might work for relatively straightforward and linear interventions, such as vaccination projects, but most of the issues we tackle in international development require a different approach.

However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to incorporate rigorous and systematic elements to our partnership analysis.

There probably isn’t just one approach to assess this, but a good starting point would be to define our hypothesis for the partnership early on, and set up monitoring and evaluation systems to test it.

This may then help us to see whether a partnership really adds value rather than just assuming it will. By doing this more consistently, we can build up evidence and examples to identify trends, and when and under what conditions partnerships are most appropriate and worth fighting for.


Here are some useful guides and studies on working in partnerships in international development:

Multi-stakeholder partnership portal: Includes over useful 60 tools and methods especially selected to support and evaluate multi-stakeholder partnership processes.

How to Design and Facilitate Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships (2015): This clearly written guide goes though the rationale of multi-stakeholder partnerships, what they are, how to design them, what makes them effective and how to move on from design to practice. 

Dealing with Paradox: Stories and lessons from the first three years of Consortium-building (2016): The Partnership Brokers Association has documented and reflected on the journey a consortium building. Though it focuses only on one particular partnership, many of the issues and challenges raised echo well with anyone working in partnership.

Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships: Building Blocks for Success (2014): This publication provides an evidence-based assessment of the performance of multi-stakeholder partnerships for sustainable development concluding that the overall performance of partnerships is mixed at best. However, the publication also identifies and discusses nine building blocks that increase the likelihood for successful and effective partnerships: leadership, partners, goal-setting, funding, management, monitoring, meta-governance, problem-structure and socio-political context. 

Proving and Improving the Impact of Development Partnerships: 12 Good Practices for Results Measurement (2014): This easy to read study looks at who measures, what to measure and how to measure public-private development partnerships as well as identifies opportunities for improvement. 

Public–Private Partnerships for Sustainable Development Emergence, Influence and Legitimacy (2013): This book focuses on public–private partnerships for Sustainable Development. Key questions studied include the overall effectiveness and influence of partnerships, their geographical, functional and organizational scope, and their legitimacy.

Partnership Indicators: Measuring the effectiveness of multi-sector approaches to service provision (2002): This short paper provides example indicators on measuring partnerships which are often hard to define.

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