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.

2020 Vision

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Sun up, Saigon, 12 May 2020.

Thanks to technology, we have all kinds of information at the click of a button. Whilst huge numbers of population groups can’t access the internet, not long from now everyone will be connected in some shape or form.

Technology is helping us make better sense of our impacts on the environment, and how to resolve the negative aspects of these. Technology has enabled block chain systems to evolve, challenging how existing global market transactions work, and providing alternative methods for citizens to cast votes in elections. Technology is enhancing the way we communicate with each other, how we forge and maintain relationships, both professional and personal.

I’ve been working with The Partnering Initiative (TPI) recently and we’re seeing how technology can also be a positive vehicle for partnership work. In particular, between organisations seeking to solve societal issues, such as poverty, injustice and now, during such comprehensively macabre times, a health pandemic.

The current implications of Covid-19 are reverberating through every country of the world. We rely on technology to support our response to this virus, as well as to develop its vaccine.

However, there is one damning chasm that technology has failed to fill in: inequality.

American author, William Gibson, once said: “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”. 

Inequality, on a global scale, rages on.

Recently, the stark extent to which our planet’s wealth is unevenly distributed has been shared wider and wider.

Oxfam’s Inequality Campaign helps put the data into perspective – 1% of the world’s population own more than the rest combined. Other agencies have provided tools to help us determine how our own wealth fares, when compared to global median levels. If you are curious about your ranking, then The Giving What We Can platform calculates this for you here: How Rich Are You?

Covid-19 has exposed the pervasive extent to which social inequalities direct so much of what and how societies function.

Capitalist market-based models and patriarchal and cultural norms clearly also contribute heavily. Too many men in positions of power. Too many assumed entitlements, personified daily by too many people used to getting what they want, when they want it.

Which is, of course, where the remedial qualities of partnership working can play a critical role.

As TPI and others have experienced, on the topic of partnership working, it is not sustainable to broker a meaningful partnership with another organization if both parties refuse to embrace new methods, new approaches and new behaviours. Partnerships also won’t sustain if individuals don’t cede elements of control and influence to which they might intuitively feel they are entitled.

Instead, long-term, impactful partnerships will only succeed in their objectives if any aspects of inequality within them are not re-balanced.

Covid-19 should be seen as an overdue warning shot across a country’s bows, but specifically the world’s wealthiest ones.

The US and the UK are floundering with their responses to the pandemic. Caught up in political points scoring, unwilling to learn from the experiences of other nations, blinkered in their pursuit of populist messages.

There was a time when these countries took pride in their international development investments, a time when being a “global citizen” was worn as a badge of some honour by political ambassadors.

A time when signing up to the doctrine of partnership, that the Sustainable Development Goals got close to evangelizing (as part of the United Nation’s second round of fifteen year commitments to the world’s most marginalized and vulnerable citizens) was taken ‘as a given’.

These times have changed. Those sentiments shelved.

And, one scenario perhaps, is that we won’t now see a return to that previous status quo. It’s plausible that the seismic nature of the shifts caused by Covid-19 are too severe to be fully repairable.

Gibson’s statement asks us to consider if our new normal will see more people living comfortably with wealth, or more people living uncomfortably with poverty?

Will our human condition – when so flagrantly put under the microscope and tested, as it could be argued is happening in 2020 – regenerate more altruistically as a result of Covid-19? Or, will the opposite scenario unfold, and a more self-centered and individualistic norm rise from the ashes of the pandemic?

That partnerships can solve complex social and environmental challenges is undisputed.

But partnerships, we also know concretely, won’t survive long, if those leading them choose not to believe in the power of the many, and in the spectacular innovation that comes from collaboration.

To hope for a future where collective action and shared goals are espoused by all (by organisations who traditionally function to benefit only their shareholders, or by governments who only crave election votes) is, of course, a version of a utopia state. And that hope itself carries with it many complications and flaws.

And yet, no amount of technological advances will ever truly make a difference in the pursuit of a more just and equal society.

Real change only ever comes from hearts and minds. Not from algorithms.

Economic Resilience: Lessons from a workshop in Kenya

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Local market in Westlands, Nairobi

Every day, we each make decisions about money. Weighing up hundreds of transaction options in a single week, our choices are based on quality, value, needs and desires. To do this, we require information and knowledge, and ultimately we crave the security of knowing that we can afford to buy things.

Cryptic introductions aside, this post is inspired by an illuminating week overseas with new people, and offers up some jet-lagged musings about money and about equity.

Last week I was in Nairobi, with colleagues from Save the Children who’d gathered to share their experiences on the topic of “Economic Resilience”.

In a game of ‘Non-Governmental Organisation [NGO]’ Bingo, now would be the time to mark a cross in your first box: Economic Resilience, what a buzz-word (or “fuzz-word” as someone in Nairobi suggested) indeed.

There were 14 country teams in attendance last week, each armed with definitions, approaches, ideas and stories to tell about their respective efforts at delivering projects with local communities that increase people’s Economic Resilience.    Continue reading “Economic Resilience: Lessons from a workshop in Kenya”