Abstract: In 2013, the Start Network (formerly the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies) commissioned a series of case studies to document its emerging experience as a “humanitarian system change catalyst”. Three case studies have been published to date, relating the story of the consortium from its inception to its current state and looking at the organisational and human dimensions of a multi-stakeholder membership model. In this article, the author provides a critical review of the case studies.
A review of the Start Network case studies
In 2013, the Start Network (formerly the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies) commissioned a series of case studies to document its emerging experience as a “humanitarian system change catalyst”. Three case studies have been published to date, relating the story of the organisational and human dimensions of the consortium’s multi-stakeholder membership model.
The story behind the building and development of the Start Network is recognisable; it is also highly inspiring, particularly with regard to the development the Network has gone through and the courageous choices made at decisive moments.
Started as a response to DFID’s call for proposals to strengthen the capacity of NGOs for disaster response, it has grown into a truly independent network of organisations working on new business models for humanitarian action. Started as a consortium of five organisations, at the time of writing it is a consortium of 26 entities with more than 100 people contributing to what the Director of the Start Network, Sean Lowrie, still calls “an experiment”, one that wanted to implement “a radical new way of thinking about investing in the humanitarian system”. It is evolving into a collaborative model where the focus is on the operational part “aspiring to innovate and reach scale”.
The story of the Start Network is really a case in point of a successful emerging network, with several ‘bumps’ in the road, the challenges and the crises as tipping points. The story itself emerges as you read it, giving the impression it is happening in front of you. The case study format includes participative observation (from the writer), document analysis but also the stories of staff and advisors of the Network. That makes it even more interesting: it is not only from the perspective of a well- informed outsider but includes at its heart the perspectives of the people heavily involved in the process: they speak for themselves. This is evident, for example, in the many rich quotes throughout the text. Whilst these do enhance an understanding of the process, the amount of quotes sometimes also hinders the flow of the narrative (especially in the second case study: Power & Politics: The Consortium-building Story Continues). The possible consequence of this approach could be that the validity of the case (usually a characteristic of case studies) may be limited. I will come back to that later, at the end of this review.
Crisis as a tipping point
The Start Network case study series consists of three studies designed to be stand-alone stories. However, when you read them in chronological order it gives the reader in-depth insights into the development of a promising yet highly challenging collaboration.
The first study, ‘Dealing with Paradox’ tells the story of the first three years in which the initiating organisations built a consortium of NGOs with ambitious intentions. It describes how the Consortium was set up; including an intriguing remark that it was agreed that it should not be a partnership but ‘operating in the spirit of partnership’.
The first case study also reveals that despite a highly positive mid-term evaluation and with considerable support from many people excited by what the Consortium was achieving, DFiD decided to stop funding the initiative after two years. This moment of crisis in the existence of the Consortium actually became “the best thing that could have happened”. Members became convinced that the Consortium was valid and could reinvent itself. They decided to invest in a process of ‘blue-sky thinking’ to see if there was a viable future for the initiative.
The withdrawal of DFID’s funding turned out to be a true tipping point: the Consortium evolved into a stronger network attracting serious funding for civil society crisis response. Perhaps the way the Consortium reacted to its own crisis served as an example for this network on crisis response.
The essence of collaboration
The second case study, entitled ‘Power & Politics’, follows up on the first study as the subtitle reads ‘the Consortium-building story Continues’. Members were able to establish a (re)new(ed) initiative, including a new name – Start Network. By the end of 2014 almost 20 organisations were members of the Start Network.
Membership is key to the success of the Start Network – combining forces in order to accelerate the response to humanitarian emergencies in an innovative way. At the same time, the membership model is also very challenging: the need for consensus may work against the innovative power of the network; and the competitiveness between NGOs may occasionally stand in the way of deciding who is able to do the best job in any given crisis situation.
There are two things at least that – in my view – support the positioning of the Start Network. The first is the Start Network Declaration of Intent. Despite the effort it may have taken (it took almost a year to be agreed), members – in the end – were able to formulate together a collective vision and a shared position they stand for. They have now a collaborative and publicly-made statement. This is not only crucial for their own legitimacy but it is also good to have a self-developed framework to shape activities, and upon which they can be held accountable.
The second success element might be understood as experimenting with a new business model. Core of this new model, in my view, is the fact that Network members cooperate and whilst they still compete with each other, they compete to become even more innovative. This is only possible in an open, transparent network in which its members are capable to look beyond their own borders. This is not a platitude, as Sean Lowrie emphasizes: “we are not a ‘closed club’, but (…) a work in progress”. When you are able to continuously consider yourself ‘a work in progress’, I think you have understood the essence of collaboration at its best.
Therefore, the story continues…
The last of the present series, entitled ‘Realities Behind the Rhetoric’ consists of the experiences of staff and advisors of the Start Network. It is composed of reflections on their roles and their day-to-day challenges but, also captures thoughtful and imaginative views from their professional perspectives and the way they contribute to the success of the Network.
The Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) Manager, Matthew Kletzing, for example, states that MEL is about ‘”Good enough. Better next time. (…) Because timing is everything”. Especially when your daily business is dealing with emergencies: “who cares about your report if the flood happened six months ago!” It shows a pragmatic but audacious perspective on what MEL can contribute to improve that daily business. Because that is what MEL is all about in the end: improving, improving, and improving. And according to Matthew Kletzing that requires a learning attitude: ‘watch, try and understand’. That sounds quite different from ‘plan, do, act’, but so much more realistic.
Another insightful example is Randolph Kent, advisor of the Start Network from its early days, who is introduced as a ‘critical friend’. He focuses on the need to be more anticipatory and adaptive when working in international cooperation, especially in humanitarian aid. How to act in more sensitive ways? How to act considering the changing context and to become more ‘pro-active’ as a whole? Since prevention is better than cure. That implies a need to be ready for what may come. Or, in Randolph Kent’s words: ‘exploring the future is not intended to predict what the world will look like in two decades time, but rather to help humanitarian actors think about the ‘what might be’s’’.
Just two examples of inspiring perspectives on what effective collaboration requires: learning and anticipating. Being ready to constantly improve. Keeping on dreaming. As Sean Lowrie states at the end of case study three: “I believe that if the proposition of the Start Network is compelling enough, it can be a legitimate recipient of impact investment, or even payment for market-building activities”.
How a paradoxical lens can help to understand
The first case study titles speaks of paradoxes. Of course, the whole story of the Start Network is full of paradoxes. I do like the author’s decision to frame things in terms of paradoxes since I consider there are always inherent tensions in partnering.
Partnering is a complex, multi-layered phenomenon that requires an equally complex and multi-layered approach instead of trying to over simplify things in order to be able to deal with or to manage them more easily. That is why it is often so difficult: there is no ‘one way fits all’ solution to complex or (as scientific literature calls them) wicked issues; the solutions are as complex and as wicked as the problems themselves are.
However, when you consider complexity in terms of paradoxes it can help to understand and then face the difficulties. Paradoxes are apparent contradictions. That doesn’t mean that you have to choose or trade-off between one or the other extreme, but that you can try and make the paradox productive. With that I mean, that when you are aware of the tensions and contradictions you can make them discussable or part of the evolving collaboration process.
For example: what does it mean when Network members have different views on the Declaration of Intent? In case study two of the Start Network case study, there is a very insightful box quoting verbatim the Board’s discussion about the proposed text. Here you can see (or actually it feels more like being part of the discussion) what happens in the conversation that makes the outcome acceptable to all members.
Another example is the safe space the Network provides for some members that is somewhat more dangerous for others. After a two and a half day retreat of Board and staff (described in the first study), one of the participants admitted that although ‘he did not agree with every decision made, he felt that this was OK since he was very comfortable with the Consortium’s whole approach and direction. What he was describing was a strong sense of alignment rather than agreement (…)’. Being part of the shaping process of the Network enlarges not only the understanding of each other but also the development of the collaborative model necessary for what the Network is designed to achieve.
Core paradoxes of partnering
After reading the three studies, I believe that each of them feature a core paradox of partnering, so to speak.
The first story reveals what I would like to call the paradox of collaboration. On the one hand focusing on results (you start collaborating in the first place to achieve certain results, don’t you?) requires clear and upfront structuring, planning and coordination of the process; on the other hand collaboration needs room and flexibility to do justice and evolve from what arises. A nice example is the kind of leadership a collaborative model requires. The case study suggests that equity in partnering doesn’t mean there are no leaders. But ‘in effective development partnerships, leaderships roles ebb and flow between different players during the life of the collaboration’ – I would call that ‘collaborative leadership’, emphasizing the process of leading (instead of collective leadership that emphasizes the act of leading).
The second story entails the paradox of change. This tension is well described as follows: ‘(…) a tension between the need for the Network to compromise in order to reach consensus and to be able to work within the system, whilst at the same time being a vocal and visible advocate for fundamental change of the system itself’.
And the third story includes the paradox of transformation. At its most powerful, transformation touches the core of a collaboration. Transformation includes not only the organisation(s), their services, or their beneficiaries, transformation is about the underlying mind-set. Regarding the Start Network this is very to the point put by Sean Lowrie: “the essential paradox of Start remains: it is a positive disruptor created by incumbents”.
So, as a practitioner working within an academic institution, the inspiring and at the same time rather challenging insight I take from the Start Network case: with the paradoxical lens you can access tensions by re-thinking what is needed. Conventional ways of thinking are not sufficient anymore. We need more emphasis on the sense of sharing (instead of acting based on roles or interests). And that new way of thinking will need to be accompanied by a new language that can encompass and express paradox.
Case studies in general could contribute to the development of this kind of thinking and reveal possible new concepts and words. That depends, of course, on the quality of the study, usually assessed on the basis of its reliability, validity and applicability.
The choice of specific viewpoints and areas of interests in the Start Network case studies are not always explicit. The first story is built along the timeline of the first three years, the second story consists seemingly ad hoc chosen topics and the third study is a collection of different voices of people involved. In other words, I would like to have had more insight into the methodology used and the choices made in developing the case studies. That would possibly benefit the level of validity. A more systematic interpretation of the observations could enlarge the value of this series of case studies and the lessons that can be learned from them. This interpretation is left to the readers. As one of the readers I think it would be interesting to be able to share and exchange interpretations with other readers. So that we can jointly increase the body of knowledge about innovative partnering.
The effort and dedication with which this case study series is made is definitely an inspiration. The original intention of the writers and contributors – to record the journey of evolution of a network with a mission to challenge and change the way the humanitarian sector functions – can become an innovative and experimental contribution to new paradoxical thinking on how to effectively collaborate. I am looking forward to the next part of the Start Network case study series!
Marieke de Wal is the Managing Director of the Partnerships Resource Centre (PrC) at the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), the business school of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The PrC is an open centre for academics, practitioners and students to create, retrieve and share knowledge on cross sector partnerships for sustainable development.
Founded in late 2009 by prof. dr. Van Tulder of RSM, the PrC envisions a more sustainable and inclusive world in which all sectors – government, civil society and business – act upon their responsibility in addressing complex societal issues that are not only difficult to address, but even difficult to define and require the input of multiple stakeholders. By working together in partnerships they will be more effective and achieve greater impact. The PrC aims to build knowledge to gain more insight in the working of partnerships and make this knowledge useful and applicable for partnership practitioners.
This focus aligns with her personal opinion that the societal issues and conflicts we are facing today can only be tackled if communities work together, a belief that we have to develop ‘collaborative leadership’ to shape the future of the generations to come.
Marieke studied philosophy at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and worked for more than 10 years at Berenschot, one of the largest consultancy firms in the Netherlands. Her expertise is in public-private partnerships and facilitation of multi-stakeholder dialogues. She joined the PrC in 2012. She participated in the Foundation Program and Advanced Program of the Presencing Institute of MIT, Boston, USA and later this year hopes to achieve formal Accreditation as a Partnership Broker from the Partnership Brokers Association.