Collaboration in Action: From Supporting Projects to Funding Partnerships
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How will the international community achieve SDG 17, and with it, the other sixteen SDGs?

It is important to understand the exact role that funders can and should have in furthering a partnership approach.

Capacity building for high quality process management needs to be incorporated from program design to the starting phase and from the implementation to the scaling phase.

The international community’s embrace, in September 2015, of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and associated 169 targets reflects the increasing acknowledgment of the multi-faceted and complex nature of global development challenges. The inclusion of SDG 17 (partnerships for the Goals) in this goal set identifies critical actors for the implementation of the sustainable and just future for all that the SDGs aim to achieve. Partnerships and multi-stakeholder collaboration between business, NGOs, government, donors and communities at all levels are essential for achieving the SDGs, and that partnering activities will be needed at scale. But how will the international community achieve SDG 17, and with it, the other sixteen SDGs?

SDG 17 aims to revitalize global partnerships for sustainable development. A successful sustainable development agenda should enhance multi-stakeholder collaboration, bringing funders together with governments, civil society, the private sector, the United Nations system and a multitude of other actors, in an effort to leverage the potential of collaboration and mobilize all available resources. Moreover, these partnerships are needed at global, regional, national and local levels. Because, as the Member States of the United Nations agreed in SDG 17: “Urgent action is needed to mobilize, redirect and unlock the transformative power of trillions of dollars of private resources to deliver on sustainable development objectives”.

Multi-stakeholder partnerships are therefore crucial in order to enhance the delivery of the Global Goals. Actors have begun to work collaboratively in their efforts to address SDG challenges, with examples including the Geneva 2030 Ecosystem, the German support platform for 2030 Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships, as well as partnership capacity building institutions such as the Collective Leadership Institute, the Partnering Initiative, the Partnerships Resource Centre, Partnerships in Practice, and the Partnership Brokers Association. But what is required to ensure that multi-stakeholder partnerships are able to meet the complex and interlinked challenges of sustainability? And how can funders contribute to making the collaboration journey a success?

The role of funders in shifting planning and implementation logic

At present, a growing number of bilateral and multilateral donors have started to not only collaborate with NGOs, but also the private sector as part of their development strategies. Concurrently, such funders expect funded institutions and civil society organizations to collaborate and form partnerships with different sectors within society. But what is greatly underestimated is that partnership projects follow a different planning and implementation logic than the more traditional project management approach.

In such partnerships, experience shows that:

  • Planning is different: It is more time consuming to appropriately engage different stakeholders into a collaboration process. More planning meetings are therefore necessary, and as a result more funding should go into the preparation phase of partnership projects.
  • Goals, results and indicators could be less fixed: While goals are important, within partnerships all goals are under continuous construction to a far greater extent than in traditional projects. As a result, partners should be agile, rather than harboring a rigid focus on results. The need for agile goals and expectations therefore need to be addressed in the funding proposal.
  • Theories of change need to be adaptable: The same logic applies to the achievement of outcomes. Theories of change need to be co-constructed by partners and adapted over time.
  • Implementation requires care-taking of the partnership: Implementation is only effective if the ownership of partners is high and each partner feels accountable because of a passion for change, rather than a perceived need to adhere to a project plan.
  • Monitoring and evaluation is an issue to be agreed on by all partners: No one single partner should, or can, decide how monitoring takes place in a collaboration process. Both the system and the focus need to be agreed upon by all partners.

Moreover, it is important to understand the exact role that funders can and should have in furthering a partnership approach. How can they enable all involved institutions to successfully engage in multi-actor partnerships?

Funders of multi-stakeholder partnership approaches should:

  • Acknowledge that building successful collaboration requires more time than traditional project planning. Setting up complex collaboration systems with multiple actors requires more resources in the beginning. Project budgets need to reflect this.
  • Invest in capacity building for partnering. A project in which all actors understand the essentials of making partnerships successful has a much higher likelihood of success. The budget needs to cater for capacity building.
  • Help build the knowledge base around partnerships, give orientation and support practice exchange. Learning around partnering should be part of every project budget.

Capacity building towards a shift in planning and implementation logic

Because of the different planning and implementation logic described above, effective multi-stakeholder partnerships around the 17 SDGs require not only innovative ways of thinking, but also different skills to implement projects and programs differently. However, many donor organizations are still unaware that partnering can only become effective with increased competencies and skills for effective stakeholder collaboration.

Capacity building for high quality process management needs to be incorporated from program design to the starting phase and from the implementation to the scaling phase. This step can take the form of tailored capacity building matching the needs of the partnerships, or can take place as exchanges of experience, provision of guidance or handbooks or establishing learning communities that help actors to accelerate good practices in partnering. In order to ensure the best possible results for multi-stakeholder partnerships, it is important that funders invest in these forms of capacity building and implementation support. Building well-functioning cooperation systems is what makes partnerships successful.

For the innovative mindset of collaboration to succeed against historical habits of working in silos and competition, donors and implementation agencies should approach project implementation and societal change learning requirements with an open mind. Building competence for partnering – from the local to international levels – is paramount for achieving not only SDG 17, but all of the other Sustainable Development Goals as well.

Petra Kuenkel is a Member of the Club of Rome, Executive Director of the Collective Leadership Institute, and the author of “The Art of Leading Collectively”. The Collective Leadership Institute as an international not-for-profit organisation has built collaboration competencies for SDG implementation of more than 2500 change agents around the globe.

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