Summary expert meeting Strategic Partnerships

What are the success factors that make strategic partnerships work?

Aside from her local partners, the NCEA also works with other internationally operating organisations in countries or regions where they can play complimentary roles. In this session the NCEA brought together different experiences with such strategic partnerships, to talk about why these sometimes work and sometimes don't. What does it take to develop and maintain a successful strategic partnership? Below we present the highlights of the discussions.

What is a strategic partnership and what is it not?

  • Strategic partnerships are not a solution to everything. We need to be realistic in our expectations and keep evaluating partnerships to learn what works and what doesn’t.
  • Partnerships come in diverse forms: between governments, between CSOs at different levels, between governments and CSOs, between CSOs and knowledge institutes etc.
  • The term ‘partnership’ is often confused with other types of relationships. Relationships occur along a continuum between transactional relations at one end and partnerships at the other. A real partnership implies an equal relationship with mutual accountability and that partners can maintain their autonomy. Sometimes partnership is confused with ‘donorship’ or with just being ‘friends’.
  • A partnership is strategic when the key driver is the achievement of development goals and agenda’s. Sometimes the key driver of collaboration is to get access to funds, and shared goals should not be assumed.

What makes strategic partnerships work?

  • Key in a partnership is to have a long term horizon: you must have a clear vision of what you want to achieve with your partnership at the end of the day and be committed to entering into a long term relationship.
  • Building relations and an alliance does not happen overnight: partnerships evolve and it takes time and investments to get to know each other. At the same time, there must be at some point also a direction for goals, results and a more detailed planning of the approach.
  • One must also ask the question if your partnership is the right one for the goals envisaged?
  • Having different mandates and having complementary roles is a crucial aspect in partnerships. This implies that each actor must acknowledge and articulate its own shortcomings and know its strengths. Examples:
    • CSOs can try to influence politics and behaviours whereas governments can play diplomatic roles.
    • Institutions like the NCEA can bring in knowledge and help CSOs to relate to governments, while CSO’s provide access to their local networks.
    • Institutions like the Norwegian Environmental Agency can bring technical expertise, while the NCEA can brings institutional expertise.
  • Equality and mutual accountability are important principles, but at the same time you need a division in roles, tasks and mandates.
  • Having secure access to resources (and hence no need to compete) is a key factor for success in a partnership.
  • It depends on the type of partnership if there is space to disagree with each other, and present different views to parties outside the partnership. For some partnership this does not work, while for others it can be a strategic choice. In some cases - think about multi stakeholder platforms - difference in views and interests are inherent to the partnership. Most importantly, it needs to be agreed upfront if you ‘agree to disagree’.

Dilemmas in strategic partnerships
Some dilemmas were identified, which are particularly relevant in partnerships between governments and CSOs:

  • How to ensure transparency in strategic partnerships where partners have a different nature and mandate?
  • Can CSOs still be critical about the Government, if they are partnering?
  • Building strategic partnerships requires time and investments: this is not in line with the relatively short funding cycles and the limited resources / space CSOs have to nourish these partnerships.
  • Competition among CSOs for imited funding sources creates a tendency to stress own uniqueness and strengths. How to define your own strengths and shortcomings and find complimentary roles comes after the funds are secured.