Partnership musings at 33,000 ft

Photo credit @saigonsays
Photo credit @saigonsays

Over the last couple of months I’ve spent time at various “partnership” themed events. Bangkok, Singapore, Hanoi, even the leafy outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia, many thousands of miles away from the hustle bustle of Saigon. Different venues, but similar take-away recommendations about how, if we are truly to tackle social and environment issues and bring about change in the future, for the future, we must join forces with others.

In some cases, forming alliances which might seem oxymoronic: for example, big business in partnership with local communities; municipal governments working with large NGOs.

Previous case studies on this blog site (where CARE is partnering with companies in the region, including GSK and Diageo) are backed up by hundreds more out there, many of which are breaking new ground and offer hope for replicating models which others can adopt, adapt and improve.

These days, access to partnership consultants, partnerships academies, think tanks, partnership conferences, workshops about partnership conferences, or even research about workshops about partnership conferences (I’ll stop here) are all available and, themselves, proving increasingly commercially viable lines of business.

However, they are each likely to offer the same advice. They will stress how mutuality, trust, and communications are “key components” to a good partnership. They will showcase good practice and, if you are lucky, bad as well.

As is customary for this topic, you will hear from the experts how partnerships between different organisations are essentially still only as good as the relationships made by those individuals partaking in them. Just like in life – they will tell you – when you first meet a new friend, a work colleague or a companion. You will experience the “getting to know you” period, then the “making commitments” part of the equation, and so on. Each phase littered with ups and downs along the way.

I think a heavy dose of critiquing of this growing surge of allure towards cross-sector partnering, in the international development space, is usually healthy, mainly because a good majority of what exists in this space is poorly construed, unequally invested in, and inefficiently executed upon. And because, on the whole, people pay lip service to what something such as “commitment” actually means within the context of their organisation partnering another.

CARE-GSK partnership project visit in Lashio, Myanmar
CARE-GSK partnership visit, Myanmar – click photo to read about our partnership achievements

Commitment beyond, for example, simply investing in the design of a clever new way to pump clean water from a previously neglected source, or to use new training techniques to improve the chances of a mother beating the historical odds, in her local and marginalised community, and surviving childbirth. Commitment then beyond merely bean counting the money required to make such designs work, and reporting back on how many peopled had been trained or how many water filters installed.

Partnership commitments can and should be more compelling than embodying only the mechanical project components.

Investing commitment, instead, into changing your organisation’s actual behaviour, within the context of a partnership with another entity, is quite a different challenge.

Behaviour change might be subtle at first, and start off with an organisation ceding control over something important to them – such as decision making. Or, it might be a more orchestrated change, focused on the ‘mutuality’ aspect to cross sector partnerships – shared ambitions, shared resources, shared skills – in a way that actually moves people and their organisations, authentically, towards a new way of managing and conducting themselves.

Across this current fraternity of partnership fora, you hear organisations claiming to “walk the talk” (ie following one’s own preaching to others on issues of responsibility or partnership behaviour). This is often plastic engineered parlance, however it never fails as a motif to provoke a room full of agreeable nodding heads, and so we allow it.

The question remains: how can we move these types of dialogues from soundbites to action?

Cartoon credit
Cartoon credit

I’m currently thousands of feet up in the air, somewhere over the Middle East, on my way back home from the USA – a land not without its fair share of fragrantly positive and warm feeling vernacular (which tends to make me feel like the contrary, grouchy Englishman that I no doubt am) – having been immersed in discussions once more about how partnership can be used as a vehicle for change.

Where large scale cross sector partnerships are moving positive change agendas forward around the world, and will continue to do so, I do wonder how we slice through the ‘sentiments for sentiments sake’ fug of pre-packed words and sound-bites which are trotted out by all organisations on this issue and, instead, look beyond the structured imperatives of partnering (legal agreements, and the necessary contractual melee of red taping around delivery and money flow) and identify ways of harnessing the less structured?

If you will, how do we harness the imperatives of the heart, and something akin to the genuine passion which people feel, ignited in response to a particular poverty or environmental  injustice they are seeking to tackle?

In Atlanta this week, during a related debate, colleagues and I made the metaphorical connection between our global teams being like an actual family (complete with unruly siblings/departments, and distant cousins/colleagues who might only meet once a year at a family wedding/NGO conference).

Acknowledging our corporate nuances as CARE, we also acknowledged that, at the epicentre of many families, under the skin of the tension between those complex siblings, sits love. Core love. And it is through relationships, and partnerships, in large part – in whatever family or organisation to which we are affiliated – where the act of moving our lives forward will gain the most meaningful traction.

Within this, it is only in matters of the heart where we will discover our own truths, where we are allowed to shape something beyond the constructed mechanics of the day-to-day.

Simply put, we need to slice through this fug, and find authenticity, because the heart matters.

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