This article is adapted from Dr Joseph Asunka’s keynote address at the OTT Conference 2022.
The justification for partnership is clear; the path to successful partnership is far less so.
The logistics of ensuring adequate financial, human and time resources, and meeting funder requirements and timelines are but a few of the major barriers.
Sometimes it is tempting to choose the path of least resistance: going it alone.
But for think tanks who want to create change with their ideas, partnerships are essential. Thinktankers don’t have the luxury of stopping after idea generation (unlike their academic counterparts).
As John W. Kingdon writes: ‘Being heard in the policy process is often more a matter of being positioned to take advantage of opportunities when they arise than it is doing a set of things fully under one’s control.’
In my experience working in and on partnerships, four main triggers for think tanks entering partnerships with other changemakers stand out. These triggers are not mutually exclusive and a partnership may be triggered by any combination.
Idea refinement or generation
Think tanks trade in ideas. They may not need others to generate ideas, but engaging with peers, bringing in different perspectives, subjecting ideas to debate and critique will strengthen them and increase chances of success.
Even brilliant and uncontroversial ideas will only be listened to if the audience sees the messenger as credible. By way of example: the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers in Ghana is a partnership between many different actors, including think tanks, professional associations, religious groups, student unions and trade unions. It’s gained a great deal of credibility across the political divide and become an influential player in Ghanaian elections, with their reports and recommendations taken seriously.
Some issues require building momentum to gain traction. This may involve a partnership that brings several key players together to act collectively around an issue. For example, funders who have convening power, the media, social movements or influencers who can create awareness for an issue and so on.
Access to decision makers
For think tanks, the ultimate determinant of success is our ability to reach the right people with our ideas. This may involve pursuing a partnership with reformers closest to decision makers, embedding or seconding researchers to strategic public institutions, or working with donors who have direct access to decision makers.
Features of a successful partnership
Once a partnership is triggered, what makes it effective or successful? What are the essential qualities or features to consider when configuring one? I propose three:
A partnership is meaningless without a clearly defined purpose. Having a clear and compelling goal makes it easier to identify and attract relevant members and helps keep the partners focused and accountable. For instance, the purpose statement of the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers mentioned above is to enhance the quality and credibility of national elections – a tall order, certainly, but a clear purpose.
A partnership that is composed of institutions or groups with unique capabilities along the issue value chain ensures that each partner focuses on what they do best. It also means that each partner feels valued because their contribution is essential to the overall success of the partnership.
The quickest way to fail in a partnership is to view and/or treat other partners as tools or means to the ends of one or a subset of the partners. This tends to happen when certain partners wield more power or have exclusive control of financial resources. Successful partnership must be built on equality, mutual trust and respect.
Tackling bottlenecks: a grant maker’s experiment
When I started my five-year stint in private philanthropy, I had the responsibility of allocating about $10 million annually to grantee partners around the globe.
It was soon clear to me that grant allocation could help improve partnerships – especially those between international NGOs or research institutions and their African partners.
I decided to experiment by removing the exclusive control of resources by one, or a few partners, and fostering complementarity. I made separate grants to partner organisations working in one of our strategic outcome areas. I designed the grants to reinforce the core competencies of each institution along the value chain of the issue they worked on.
This approach had two effects: it allowed each partner to have full control over their programme budget, and each partner was able to concentrate on their core competencies while working with and relying on the other partners to fill the gaps.
A key point to note here is that these partnerships already existed. My role as a funder was to find a way to make them more effective. I would not encourage the artificial construction of partnerships by funders. The best role that a funder can play in fostering effective partnerships is to nurture existing collaborations and provide the resources they need to thrive.
While funders can be instrumental in partnership building, especially in tackling the resource-control barrier, grant seekers can – and must – play a role by being proactive about capturing partnerships in grant proposals.
Partnerships should not be an afterthought. As Kingdon notes, ‘Good ideas do not drive policy change by themselves, they must be coupled with more conventional political forces.’ We must be deliberate about building these ‘conventional political forces,’ which are essentially partnerships, into grant proposals.
So, whether you’re considering working with political parties, the media, student movements, social media influencers, or your peers, these collaborations need to be carefully thought through and incorporated in your funding requests. Doing so will help generate the resources to cover the costs of the partnerships – another hurdle cleared.
Watch the full conversation here: