Building Better Partnerships: Plan International’s approach to working with partners

Jenny Shotton

Global Coordinator Civil Society Strengthening and Partnerships, Plan International

Like many international actors, Plan International strives to be as impactful in our work as possible, and as representative and inclusive of the people we work with and for – in our case, this is children and young people, with a strong emphasis on girls and gender equality. Partnerships are important for us. Our current global strategy emphasises that working with others is critical to achieving our goal, and we find ourselves working increasingly with partners to fulfil our mission, from community level to the global sphere. To assist the organisation to establish a common understanding of our approaches to partnerships, Plan has developed global guidance called ‘Building Better partnerships’. This forms the foundation on which we base our partnerships.  It outlines our principles for working with partners, and details the key steps we follow within our partnerships across the organisation.

Our starting point

In 2013 we conducted an evaluation on our approach to partnerships through a Keystone Partnership survey, which showed we weren’t performing as well as we imagined. This pushed us to look inwards and address the reasons to why we were failing to build and strengthen partnerships. By 2015, our Building Better Partnerships guidance was developed and then piloted over a period of two years. A review process followed, led by a working group including colleagues from our Global Hub, National Offices and Country Offices, to capture learnings from the pilot phase. These included incorporating a stronger nuance in understanding who we partner with and for what purpose.

 

As an organisation we are very aware of the importance of incorporating good existing practices and nurturing participation across the organisation – and the process which we undertook to further develop the partnerships guidance was crucial to generating support internally. The result was an updated robust, practice-driven practical guidance that was finalized in May 2018, but the challenge remained as to how to roll this out to the whole organisation and ensure that the very best partnership practices were well socialised, understood and practiced across all our work with partners.

 

Socialising and scaling

To these ends, a multi-year partnership upskilling programme was designed to accompany Building Better Partnerships. Aiming to reach all our country offices and training a community of partnership champions to drive forward partnership work within their own contexts and offices, this mainly face to face training was action-orientated and required participants to develop concrete action plans for their offices. It was complemented by significant post-training follow up and mentoring support. Although upskilling was interrupted by the global pandemic, 155 staff from 35 offices were trained in person before learning moved to a purely online space earlier this year.

 

To further the integration of good partnership practices across the organisation, an annual partnership survey was launched. This anonymous survey, developed around the core principles within our partnership guidance, rolled out in 2017 and for the last two years has been mandatory for country offices to complete. Year on year, we have seen the numbers of country offices administering the survey and the number of respondent partners steadily increase. Responses from this year’s partnership survey are up around 52% from last year and we are receiving consistent positive feedback from most partners, although of course areas for improvement are highlighted too. With a more comprehensive dataset, we are gaining insights about our technical expertise and trends in the ways we work with others: at the country level, individual offices analyse their own findings and are encouraged to generate action plans following further consultation with partners, and on a global level, findings are consolidated and reflected back to both leadership and the wider organisation.

 

One final key institutional mechanism in place to support the quality of our partnership work, is our ‘working with partners’ management standards, which are also constructed around Building Better Partnerships. These go beyond good project management and focus on how we maintain strong internal practices and processes to support our work with partners. Our country offices are currently embarking on their first ever self-assessment process around these standards, and the intention is that this will be fully integrated into future reporting cycles.

 

Prioritising contextual factors

Of course, across all our work, context is key. Implementing an approach to partnerships is impacted by external drivers, for example by the legal frameworks within a country or the fragility of the context. As a global organisation, we are now at a stage where more institutionalised and tailored types of support are called for – such as strategic advice around critical planning moments or tools and guidance to enable country offices to recruit and train personnel with the required competencies and skills. Internally, we have found enabling factors such as management teams who recognise the value of partnerships have proved an essential driver of change. In particular, investment in dedicated partnership management roles has resulted in more systemic good practices being embedded within a number of country offices.

 

The combination of external and internal influences has meant offices have followed different pathways of change, some making huge progress in their partnership work and others less. We are also looking to further build up our global learning community to enable good practices from our country and regional offices to circulate across the organisation.

 

Prioritising our constituency

As we develop our thinking on partnerships, and reflect on how we work best with others, corresponding questions have arisen as to how we can provide better support to meet the needs of and work with our key constituencies. It would be incongruous for us to support child and youth participation and empowerment across our programming and influencing work, but not actively pursue partnerships with child and youth led organisations and groups – changemakers who are the true experts on what will make a difference in their lives. Establishing approaches to do this is a high priority, although like many similar sized international organisations our robust financial and project management processes may serve us well in terms of external accountability to donors, but do not provide us with much flexibility to work with organisations who may look and act differently to traditional NGOs. In fact, our compliance systems often hinder effective partnering with youth-led organisations on equal terms.

 

Some parts of Plan are forging ahead and finding solutions – many offices in Latin and South America have developed financial guidelines together with their youth-led partners, and our Bangladesh office has created flexible funding guidance for working with youth groups. At a global level, we are moving up a gear from Building Better Partnerships. Within the last year, we have produced a supplementary guidance titled ‘Pathways to Partnering with Youth Organisations’. This unpacks our seven partnership steps and ‘what needs to be done differently with youth organisations’ – and unsurprisingly, it was also developed hand in hand with our youth-led partners.

 

We are now looking at how to best socialise the guidance in the COVID era, adapting to a world in which face to face meetings and workshops are no longer feasible, and we will soon pilot a video training toolkit to support offices to reflect together on current practices and plan how to strengthen their partnerships with youth-led organisations. For the first time this year, we included child and youth-led organisations in our annual partnership survey, and therefore have a baseline set.  We eagerly await to see how practices change across our offices. Our youth-led partners have told us they want more control over resources and decision making. We are listening.

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