Quality over quantity: taking a new approach to partnering

The adage about “quality over quantity” is, perhaps, a useful moniker to attach to the behaviour of much of what has defined the last 30 years of Western society. If only more people invested less on satisfying their own need to consume and amass money.

I remember Oxfam’s hard hitting inequality campaign about the 85 people on the bus earning more than half the world’s wealth. Suitably appalled at the notion, I carried on with my life. The Panama Papers brought out a similar reaction, and I maybe spent as much as 15 minutes spluttering into my morning coffee about that one, before moving onto the next item.

Is it possible we are becoming immune to these well articulated and researched realities, when they’re plastered over a Guardian front page, because these issues are too enormous for us to do anything useful about? In which case, have the last 18 months helped curate reasonable conditions for the world to begin what many have called a “re-set” – when it comes to consumer greed and wealth – or does lockdown, instead, simply reinforce individual survival instincts?

I see zero changes in the status quo – the richest in the world continue to set the conditions for life as we know it, the dividends of which are only enjoyed by the people on the bus.

I also see no chance of this status quo changing in the next ten years. The role of China in that time will surely be one of the decade’s defining legacies however, in the meantime, whilst as individuals we can make daily choices about how we conduct ourselves, who we support, and how we “show up” in the world, this post focuses on the coalescing of organisations and institutions.

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Partnerships. Collaborations. Multi-sector platforms. Shared value.

These are all buzzwords. In particular, but not exclusively, they’re used across the international development industry, bandied from website to website, embedded in keynote speeches from Washington DC to Ho Chi Minh City.

In the non-profit world I’ve inhabited, for nearly two decades now, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve spoken about each of these these words and phrases (or been lectured to about them) I, too, would have been tweeting moronic selfies from space by now.

In spite of what feels like a decent collective effort, by many in the public, private and non-profit sectors, I simply don’t buy it that the majority of those organisations, pontificating and evangelising about their partnerships, are actually properly invested in them, and committed to partnering, operationally, in the ways that they say they are.

Given the UN helpfully convened and framed a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the world, six years ago, a good starting place to find evidence of how organisations have been partnering with each other, to support the SDGs, can be found via http://www.sdgsinaction.com or directly through their app. There are some great insights here, and it’s a good way to start to familiarise yourself with each of the Goals, and behind which specific organisations are rallying.

My daughters learnt about the SDGs at primary school. A positive marker of progress, in my opinion, in terms of how the issues of poverty and social and environmental injustice have become mainstreamed through education, and through easier access to information.

Still, I’m skeptical that organisations are only just touching the edges of potential, when it comes to truly partnering with one another.

Having worked with UN agencies, with large International NGOs, smaller non-profits, and with a range of corporations, in different regions of the world, I see the attention to detail lacking. The processes and systems for partnering are not in place. The commitment to rigour – in brokering partnerships, in their execution and in their assessment – are all below par.

Why is that?

1. Many organisations bolt-on these partnering skills to the responsibilities of already “very busy” people;

2. Others don’t secure the buy-in from important decision-makers, which usually results in under-performing partnerships;

3. And, categorically, too many organisations are prone to talking a good game in public about their reasons for partnering, but then oversee (or are forced to oversee) a compromised reality, when it comes to what their organisation is able or willing to invest in that partnership.

Like other things in life, practice makes perfect.

Organisations might do better securing all the resources, time and energy that they do have, into a smaller number of partnerships. Even starting with one. Managing just one partnership really well could have far-reaching and longer lasting results, than managing five mediocre ones.

The Partnering Initiative is a great outfit for those organisations looking to upskill in this area. They offer tools and policy guidance for setting up partnerships, as well as examples on good and bad practice.

There are other good resources out there, too, for those organisations ready to reframe and reinvent how they conduct their partnerships, and especially for those whose objectives are not exclusively designed for the 85 on the bus.

My tip, is to shoot for quality over quantity: make one partnership truly count for something, and this will pay valued dividends in the future, to those who deserve it more.

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