“People, not organisations, make for the best partners”

27 January 2014
SERIES The CGD model for think tanks 6 items

This is one of the Center for Global Development’s most interesting lesson/recommendation for think tanks. Partnerships are a key word for think tanks. Often they use the label without thinking too much about the effect it can have on a number of diverse types of relationships that they have with other organisations.

Most partnerships, however, tend to focus on organisations: Think Tank A and Think Tank B. The argument goes that if people move away from the organisation then the partnership would be lost. Funders, too, like partnerships and are keener to fund projects that include several partners rather than a single organisation with lots of associates.

But CGD seems to suggest that people make better partners than organisations.

In their paper, Lawrence MacDonald and Todd Moss argue that:

8. Partner with people, not organizations

Choosing the right partners is never easy. Working closely with other organisations can bring tremendous benefits. If you share the same goals, you may be able to pool resources, expand audiences, and leverage each other. But the hidden costs of such cooperation can be extremely high. Unlike a commercial joint venture, where the profits can be shared via a clear formula, nonprofits lack a clear way to allocate the costs and benefits of collaboration.

Differing internal practices (such as tolerance for dissenting views, clearance for publications, comfort with ambiguity) can also be deal killers. We’ve found that the best partnerships are those with very clear, narrowly defined objectives. We partner with a specific purpose in mind, not just to be part of a broad coalition.

One way that we achieve some of the benefits of partnerships with less of the hassle is through CGD working groups, which tackle a specific problem or set of challenges over a limited time, and CGD study groups, which monitor a problem or policy and bring analysis and sunshine. Recent CGD working groups have tackled such problems as food security, the future of the World Bank’s concessional lending arm, improvement of the collection and use of vital statistics and other development data in Africa, and DIBs. Previous study groups have examined US policy toward countries as different as Pakistan and Zimbabwe through a development lens, thus offering policy perspectives and alternatives that would otherwise have been overlooked within the more common geostrategic foreign policy orientation.

Whatever the nature of the task, it is imperative that participants in these groups are drawn from a variety of backgrounds with different perspectives. We have found that these teams work best when people participate on a voluntary basis and in their individual capacities, rather than as representatives of organizations (even if they are employed at key institutions).