Partnership Organization and Governance Summary, Panel Discussion
One fundamental challenge partnerships face is that they operate outside or at the margins of typical organizational structures. This leaves them vulnerable to external criticism on their lack of transparency and accountability, and also presents unique challenges for the partners to manage their interactions and work together in an efficient and effective manner. Nonetheless, as partnerships have proliferated and matured, lessons on organization and governance have emerged and could be applied to both nascent and existing partnerships which continue to evolve. This panel discussion, moderated by Robert Stephens, international chair of the Multi-State Working Group on Environmental Performance, focused on several themes: evolution of organizational frameworks, formal versus informal structures, major organizational challenges, accountability, and adaptive management.
Often, these sorts of partnerships are starting with a relatively blank slate—they are not born out of existing frameworks. This provides them with flexibility, and lends the experimental quality that can motivate partners in the early stages. Inevitably, though, partnerships move towards some sort of structured organization; some remain loosely coordinated, while others mature into standalone non-profit institutions. As mentioned earlier, the Multilateral Initiative on Malaria (MIM) began as four autonomous bodies, and partners felt that this high degree of flexibility was a strength. However, as the research landscape changed (increasing competition) and the secretariat moved for the first time to Africa, this loose coordination became more of a liability. Fundraising and coordinating decision making (the four autonomous bodies each have an advisory council) are both
proving challenging for the new secretariat. The Green Chemistry Institute (GCI; Chapter XIV), on the other hand, was born out of an existing partnership, which was narrowly focused on a specific technology. Informally, this group continued to meet and discuss broader problems in the chemical industry. They reached agreement that some sort of body was needed that could quickly support activities that could advance the field of green chemistry; consequently, they established a non-profit with a governing board. However, maintaining permanent staff and leadership for the new organization proved challenging, and led GCI to seek a partnership with the American Chemical Society (ACS), a much larger and more established organization.
Several participants questioned whether or not there was a natural transition from an informal arrangement to a formalized, highly structured organization. While there is no single model that is appropriate for all partnerships, a number of lessons seemed to emerge. First, it is important to examine the goals of the partnership. A small number of partners that are focused on delivering a discrete, time-sensitive project may not find it necessary to establish an organizational framework, but larger partnerships, particularly those with open-ended membership and timeframes, will generally seek a more formal structure. This can be especially important when engaging local stakeholders. Asking them to sign in at a meeting or subscribe to an electronic mailing list is likely insufficient to keep them engaged and reduce the perceived power imbalance between large institutions and less-organized small shareholders. The Common Code for the Coffee Community acknowledged that problems in the sector require different approaches depending on geography. This convinced the partnership of the need for increasing institutionalization, but with a governance system that incorporates myriad voices.
Parallels were drawn between partnerships and start-up businesses; the latter generally have the long-term objective of being financially sustainable, which requires that they become more structured. Paradoxically, though, the energy and enthusiasm that drive a start-up venture can dissipate if it gets bogged down as it becomes formalized, and the same can be true for a partnership. It is important for a partnership to establish a governance system that is enabling without becoming a bureaucracy itself; otherwise, the effort could die under its own weight. The Sustainable Silicon Valley (SSV) partnership needed to strike a delicate balance in order to maintain a dynamic quality, even as it became more formal. Partners decided to establish an executive committee that would focus on administrative issues necessary to the formalization process, while its board members continued to focus on high-level strategic issues. Another practical reason for formalizing the organization is simply that over time, leadership and participation will change. In the early stages, the founders gain an institutional knowl-
edge that can allow the partnership to operate in an ad hoc manner, but this eventually needs to be documented in order to pass the knowledge along, bring in new partners, and instill the core vision in new board members and leadership.
Nearly all of the cases examined have some type of board of advisors. For Global Water Challenge (GWC; Chapter IX), establishing a board was liberating for the secretariat because then the secretariat was not viewed as driving the partnership. Partners are able to contact the board directly if they have concerns with the secretariat, providing an additional level of reporting. From a corporate standpoint, senior leadership often prefers to have some sort of a protection (e.g., a board) as they get closer to a partnership organization. Therefore, more formal groups may be attractive to large corporations interested in engaging in a partnership. For the GCI, the board has also been an influential component within the organization, serving as a steering group and providing another layer of continuity (e.g., if executive leadership changes) and a high-level review of the partnership’s progress toward its goals. A participant questioned whether board members ought to be recruited based on their passion for the topic, or for their influence within an organization or a broader community. Panelists remarked that, although it is generally easier to attract board members who are already passionate about the issue and can thus help establish a vision for the partnership, as the partnership matures and demonstrates some success, it is not difficult to identify board members who bring passion as well as influence.
There was also a question about the appropriate size for a partnership. This seems to depend on the goals of the partnership. Building a community of practice, for example, entails engaging as many partners as possible, whereas a research partnership can become untenable if too many additional partners become involved. Panelists noted that as a partnership attracts new members, the secretariat needs to learn to work differently with an increasingly large and diverse membership. The Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP; Chapter VIII), an international alliance of over 250 partners, provides an example of a large and growing partnership that has found ways to remain decentralized. REEEP has begun to expand vertically, incorporating existing, independent organizations as its regional secretariats. These regional secretariats, in turn, are the “eyes and ears on the ground” for short-listing potential projects and monitoring results. The regional offices have noted that they need this discretion in benchmarking projects, owing to the vast variation across regions in terms of local needs, circumstances, and resources. REEEP also continues to attract new national-level partners, and one in particular—Norway—has brought with it a distinct management culture, which has had a positive impact on the partnership as a whole. Finally, in order to add value without
duplicating efforts, REEEP partners with other partnerships and organizations, yielding a sort of network and division of competencies in the fields of renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Perhaps not surprisingly, when asked the question of what the partnership’s most important organizational challenge was, many panelists noted that funding was a primary concern, as it relates to the organizational structure. After all, these are newly founded organizations, generally without dedicated funding sources, and often focused on public goods with little or no perceived economic value. GCI, which originated as a virtual institute operating with a thin budget, solved its budget problems by being incorporated into the ACS. Though this allowed GCI to support permanent staff members and have a physical space, it also required a series of negotiations with ACS as to how it could stay flexible and independent while still depending on direct funding from ACS. For MIM, although rotating the secretariat to Tanzania was a necessary step towards giving African malaria researchers a voice, it also created a new challenge with regard to funding. Previously, the secretariat had rotated among research institutions in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Sweden, all of which provided in-kind support to the secretariat as needed. As mentioned earlier, the secretariat is one of four loosely coordinated components within MIM, and as such, it now finds itself needing to find ways to identify additional financial support, or at least coordinate and streamline fundraising among the four components. In the case of SSV, which was initially supported by the California state government, the new governor withdrew funding, causing the partnership and its core members to focus on establishing a 501(c)(3) organization. To support such an organization, SSV needed to collect partnership fees, but this in turn required that they establish credibility, which they did first by publishing an annual report documenting their progress.
This idea of credibility relates directly to a sometimes contentious issue for these partnerships: accountability. The general public is concerned with external accountability, i.e., what the partnership is delivering, and for this it is helpful for partners to understand what type of partnership they are. A campaign-type partnership will have different governance needs and accountability mechanisms than one that seeks to implement on-the-ground infrastructure projects. However, the initial discussion focused on internal accountability. This is of course an important issue in a partnership, since several actors unaccustomed to working with one another must develop trust that each partner is “pulling its weight” and is accountable to the group. Panelists noted that it is important to get the “rules of the house” in writing as early as possible, with input from all partners, so that as the partnership grows and new partners join, they know how (if at all) they will be held accountable to the partnership. If a partner is not contributing to the effort, what is the next step? Partners ought to be able to determine
whether it is because of a lack of effort, or because the current partnership structure prevents some partners from fully contributing. For many partnerships, developing countries are implementation sites, but are not always counted as “partners;” i.e., not party to any internal accountability measures. Since many of these partnerships have boards, the boards provide another layer of internal accountability. As an example, GCI reports to its board quarterly.
Partnerships are often actually offered as a solution to accountability problems, such as political commitments that are not being implemented; this was a driving force behind the World Summit on Sustainable Development’s call for more multi-stakeholder partnerships. A participant questioned whether one type of accountability was more important than another, and while this is likely subjective, a panelist did note that the importance of external accountability is often underestimated. A simple solution is to produce and make available annual reports. However, a panelist remarked that the very nature of these partnerships means that they tend to have a large, amorphous stakeholder group which has little use for annual reports. If these partnerships are designed to yield improvements both in environmental conditions and human well-being, these goals can be embedded in accountability measures or metrics that the partnership develops. Product certification provides an example of the problem with overlooking external accountability. While a partnership to certify a sustainable product might be deemed successful according to its internal accountability standards—satisfying shareholders and expanding the market for a sustainable good, for example—it might also be reinforcing trade imbalances if certain countries have an easier time meeting these voluntary standards. Monitoring this may be outside a particular partnership’s capability, but it could be useful to keep in mind as the partnership develops accountability metrics.
For partnerships that seek to build a community of practice, insofar as they are successful, they may ultimately come to be held accountable by the community. The GCI provides such an example; with over 11 years in the green chemistry community, its activities now reflect quite strongly on the field. Finally, individual partners can bring with them a culture of accountability that influences the partnership. As several panelists noted, even if a partnership is incorporated as a standalone non-profit organization not directly accountable to anyone, the partners themselves often have multiple strands of accountability that extend to their participation in these multi-stakeholder activities. Having a public member such as a government involved can affect this. SSV originated with state government partners, but even after the government partners left the partnership, SSV retained a culture of public transparency.
Accountability also relates to the way that a partnership manages,
and the degree to which it utilizes feedback in adaptive management. SSV benefited from the fact that all initial partners used environmental management systems (EMS) in their own work. An EMS is a set of processes and practices that help an organization reduce environmental impacts and improve efficiency; it operates in a “plan-do-check-adjust” loop that SSV incorporated into the partnership’s operation. SSV’s advisory council (a group above its board) oversees the partnership’s EMS, thus freeing up the board to focus on the strategic vision and other matters. Some panelists drew a distinction between a partnership’s goals (high-level, unifying themes), and its objectives (individual pieces, generally used for reporting). For GCI, even as its structure and day-to-day objectives change, the goals it initially established continue to guide the partnership as the field of green chemistry advances. Global Water Challenge, which has a high-level goal of universal access to clean water and sanitation, sets annuals goals as well, then reflects on its pursuit of those and determines whether or not the objectives it has set are moving it towards the goal.