Seven principles for effective and healthy multi-stakeholder partnerships



Most policymakers, businesspeople and civil society representatives at sustainability conferences today are heard calling for more stakeholder engagement. Academics increasingly agree that solutions for sustainable development require cross-sector communication and partnerships. In fact, multi-stakeholder partnerships (MSPs) seem to be a favourite strategy for dealing with the challenges of sustainable development. Despite this enthusiasm we shouldn’t be naïve. Getting people to work together towards common goals is never easy. Partnership is especially daunting when diverse and competing interests, perspectives and values are at stake, and different organisational and cultural contexts involved. It is not as simple as just sticking people in a room and hoping for the best.

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    A trend towards collaboration, at a time of widening divides?

    The trend towards more partnering is undeniable. Companies are teaming up with governments, farmers and consumers to set standards in agricultural value chains; governments are joining with NGOs and businesses to tackle child labour; and civic organisations are forging broad coalitions to ban landmines. We are also seeing an increase in partnership platforms, whose main goal is to catalyse new partnerships.

    Partnerships are central in the Sustainable Development Goals and in the strategies of many countries, companies and civil organisations. Paradoxically, traditional collaborative infrastructures, such as the United Nations system, the European Union and trade agreements, are under threat. Their legitimacy and effectiveness are being loudly challenged. We live in the most connected world ever experienced, but people are retreating into their own nation, tribe or bubble.

    Yet, retreat is no solution. More effective MSPs at all scales is more important now than ever before if we are to stand a chance of achieving the transformation required. A core group of frontrunner companies, NGOs, governments and knowledge institutes have embedded a partnership approach into the core of how they work. Nonetheless, behind these frontrunners is a wide field of actors that still needs to be convinced that the future of our common home depends on us joining forces.

    The key to effectiveness for partnerships

    Though the frontrunners are convinced of the merits of MSPs, they are still often frustrated by the challenges and struggles that partnering brings. A lot of MSPs blossom early, but never bear their full fruit. The question, therefore, is not whether the idea of partnership is good or bad, but what types of partnerships are most promising. How can MSPs be designed and facilitated to deliver the change we are looking for? What conditions do they require to work?

    We use the term MSPs as an overarching concept highlighting the idea that different groups can share a common problem or aspiration, while having different interests or ‘stakes’. MSPs are a form of governance. They can serve as a mechanism for groups to make decisions and take action for the common good at the local, national or international scale. To be effective, however, such processes need to consider issues of power and conflict, systemic change and the social and cognitive paths involved in interaction and learning.

    Seven principles for effective multi-stakeholder partnerships

    Designing and facilitating MSPs is a science, a craft and an art. Given the number of partnerships that fail prematurely or never deliver results, it is safe to assume that much can go wrong, and usually will go wrong. Our experience in brokering, designing and facilitating MSPs, and our interactions with academics and practitioners, have taught us that there are no simple success formulas. However, we have identified seven principles that healthy and effective partnerships generally follow.

    Principle 1: Embrace systemic change. MSPs are often designed in a way that suggests that change is plannable. However, human and natural systems are complex. That means change is dynamic and often unpredictable. Uncertainty is an inescapable reality. It has to be accommodated when engaging in MSPs. Intervening in complex systems requires us to be agile to respond to emerging opportunities. We must commit ourselves to continuous monitoring, and expect and learn from failure. More diversity in an MSP is an asset – even if it produces more friction and conflict, because a diversity of perspectives generates more opportunities to understand the system and fosters creativity in the pursuit of solutions.

    Principle 2: Transform institutions. When we talk about social, economic and political change, we are also talking about changing the underlying institutions or traditions. By ‘institutions’ we mean the ‘rules of the game’, the formal and informal norms and values that shape how people think and behave. Deeply held values, established traditions and formal frameworks can be real barriers to change, but they can also be supportive and help MSPs achieve their aims. MSPs need to help stakeholders look critically at the institutions – both their own and those of others – that affect their work.

    Principle 3: Work with power. Power can be a negative force, but we also need it to bring about positive change. Power differences and power abuses that stand in the way of desired change need to be addressed. MSPs need to include or reach out to powerful stakeholders to shift power structures in the right directions. Similarly, empowering particular stakeholder groups – helping them get into a position where they can use power constructively – can be key in developing just and equitable solutions.

    Principle 4: Deal with conflict. Conflict arises when parties or individuals have genuinely different interests and struggle unproductively over them, rather than consulting or negotiating solutions. Conflict is an inevitable part of any MSP. It may even be necessary for change to occur. Understanding, bringing to the surface and dealing with conflict is essential in effective MSPs.

    Principle 5: Communicate effectively. Underlying any effective MSP is the capacity and willingness to communicate in an open, respectful, honest, empathetic and critical way. This involves abilities to both listen to others and to clearly articulate your own perspectives and ideas. Process designers can ensure that space is created for exploring the worldviews that underlie stakeholders’ positions. We also need to recognise the emotions of the people involved in dialogue. Effective communication gears decision-making mechanisms for high-quality decisions that are practically enforceable.

    Principle 6: Promote collaborative leadership. Leadership patterns and capacities have a profound influence on the direction that MSPs take. MSPs need a strong collaborative leadership pattern, as they are about enabling people to work together, sharing responsibility and becoming empowered to tackle difficult issues. Leadership roles need to be vested in a range of actors. We use the term ‘collaborative leadership’ to refer both to sharing leadership responsibilities and to the particular styles of leadership likely to be most effective. Practising collaborative leadership is particularly important in MSPs, because approaches that work in a hierarchical setting where leaders have formal authority are likely to fail here.

    Principle 7: Foster participatory learning. MSPs have to provide a space where learning can flourish – otherwise they are pointless. MSPs need mechanisms that enable different stakeholders to learn together from their collective experience. Events and activities are required throughout the life-cycle of an MSP to bring stakeholders together to talk, share, analyse, make decisions and reflect on what they are doing together. The quality of these learning events can be the difference between a successful or a failed MSP. Participatory learning and monitoring methods can foster creative, open, emotionally engaging and analytically sound interactions.

    Putting the principles into practice

    Good and effective MSP processes don’t just happen – they need to be designed and facilitated. Applying these seven principles can help prevent MSPs from becoming endless talk shops, toothless animals, ruthless battle zones or exercises in reinventing the wheel.

    If MSPs are to make their expected contribution to the SDGs, it is time to raise the bar for collaboration. Leaders can contribute to their effectiveness in several ways:

    – Work on partnership readiness: Many organisations talk about MSPs, but their operational structure and culture hold staff back from meaningfully engaging in MSPs.

    – Be strategic about what you design MSPs to do: An issue-fit, a partner-fit MSP and a roadmap are needed for how you will develop the partnership together.

    – Be creative in finding new financing models: It is time for MSP support to move past traditional one-donor dominated modalities.

    – Set quality standards for MSPs: Clear quality standards can help assess existing MSPs and develop higher-quality ones in the future.

    – Create safe spaces for disadvantaged groups in MSPs: Procedures and decision-making mechanisms need to be adapted so that MSPs don’t replicate existing unequal power relationships.

    – Build capacities for partnering: Don’t assume that running or engaging in a partnership is the same as running an organisation. Invest in analytical, creative, social and emotional competencies.


    Brouwer, Herman and Jim Woodhill, with Minu Hemmati, Karèn Verhoosel and Simone van Vugt (2016). The MSP Guide: How to Design and Facilitate Multi-stakeholder Partnerships. Wageningen: Wageningen University and Research (WUR) and Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation (WCDI) and Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publishing. Also available in French and Spanish.

    Here are the links in 3 languages:

    About the authors
    Herman Brouwer is senior advisor on multi-stakeholder partnerships for sustainable food systems at the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation (WCDI). He is also an associate consultant at the Collaborative Decision Resources Associates in Boulder, Colorado, USA.

    Minu Hemmati is an associate at the MSP Institute eV in Berlin, Germany. She advises NGOs, governments, international agencies, women’s networks, corporations and research institutions on transformation processes towards sustainable development, gender equity and good governance.

    Jim Woodhill is an independent consultant at AgriFoodNexus, based in Oxford, UK. He is a specialist in global food security, inclusive agribusiness and multi-stakeholder partnerships, and associated with the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford and the Institute for Development Studies in Sussex, UK.

    Read the full magazine issue

    Civil society & business: pulling in the same direction? Volume 8, Issue 1. Winter 2018/2019
    28 February 2019
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