Key issues

Initial research indicates that there are several challenges that apply to all types of alliance. These include:

Members vs mission

In any multi-stakeholder collaboration, which takes precedence – the interests / priorities of the entities involved or the perceived needs of the wider cause? Whilst the two may be broadly in alignment, when it comes to choices about specifics (about how time or money is spent, for example) it can quickly become polarised.

Sometimes the tension between these two can be productive, but managing this tension can be immensely time-consuming and nerve-wracking for those who have to do so. Added to this is the fact that mission-driven individuals (often those who initiate new alliances) are often highly directional and impatient in character and this does not always sit well alongside the attributes needed for patient relationship- and consensus-building.

Visible vs invisible power

In the world of partnering, the issue of power imbalance is the challenge cited most frequently as the factor that gets in the way of productive collaboration. Of course, we live in a world full of inequalities so it is, perhaps, inevitable that any collaborative venture, despite its best intentions, will mirror these. Overbearing behaviour can occur for any number of reasons – each scenario will be different.

It takes considerable self-knowledge to recognise the origins of overbearing behaviour (in oneself as well as in others) and courage to behave differently – putting the needs of the group above one’s own needs. All too often, collaboration efforts fail because, for whatever reason, those involved do not challenge inappropriate uses of power.

Who is accountable – for what, to whom?

Another key challenge for any multi-stakeholder collaboration is that of accountability. Invariably there are at least two levels of accountability in any collaborative venture – the vertical one where every individual has a reporting line within their own organisational hierarchy, and the horizontal one where members of the collaboration are accountable to each other. In other words, all those involved in any form of collaboration are invariably accountable to two different systems which may (or, more often, may not) easily align.

Structure vs flexibility

What are the challenges of operating collaboratively in a largely non-collaborative system? And what is the appropriate balance between a framework and structure that will enable the collaboration to function well and hold together whilst also ensuring that there is the flexibility so essential to challenging, changing and transforming. That is the focus of the next section.

Who pays? What do they pay for?

Not unrelated to the inter-play between members and mission, is the issue of funding – specifically the funding required to cover the core costs of managing the entity in a skilled, professional and imaginative way. Simply put – who pays? It seems that there are 4 basic options – each of which have implications for the way the collaboration plays out:

1 Members pay an annual fee to cover pre-agreed core costs Likely that members will expect a high level of return on investment as a priority
2 A number of projects / programmes are funded (individually, bi-laterally or collectively) by members from which an agreed % is allocated to core costs Tendency for delivery of projects to take precedence over broader aims thereby reducing the ability to be flexible and responsive
3 Funding is provided by one or more third parties (ie by external donor(s) who understand and are keen to support the goals of the entity because they are seen to match or amplify their own priorities) Risk of high level of dependency on the external funder and having to deliver against their requirements rather than the primary aims of the entity
4 Core funding is earned through other activities (for example, through the provision of goods and services) in a form of cross-subsidy Challenging to balance two kinds of operational models (income-generating business alongside not-for-profit development)

If multi-stakeholder collaboration is to truly optimise its potential, it is likely to need all of the following:

  • Inspirational leadership – one or more people able to generate ideas, drive the collaboration to achieve its goals and to position it well to external audiences
  • Efficient management – of the all-important administrative back-up, protocols and processes
  • Imaginative communications – within the entity, within and between its member organisations and on behalf of the entity to key external stakeholders
  • Capacity development – to enable the entity to flourish by challenging mind-sets, building skills and evolving the approaches needed for effective collaboration
  • Exploration of new ideas – some kind of ‘opportunity fund’ to enable innovation in response to new challenges/opportunities or perceived gaps

What are your experiences of challenges to be addressed and the core requirements needed for animating effective alliances?