Betwixt & Between

Issue #4

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Hard-earned lessons for putting the Principles of Partnership into practice

Abstract: In 2007, the Global Humanitarian Platform introduced The Principles of Partnership (Equality, Transparency, Results-Oriented Approach, Responsibility and Complementarity) as a framework with guiding principles for humanitarian agencies to factor into their operations and improve engagement with national actors and civil society partners. Anecdotal evidence from agencies reveals, that putting these principles into practice has proved to be challenging. In this article, the author outlines some of the challenges and lessons learnt from putting the Principles into practice. It draws on experiences from across different sectors and organisations, including the Partnership Brokers Association. It suggests that a partnership broker can play an important facilitative role in embedding the principles into humanitarian partnerships.

Hard-earned lessons for putting the Principles of Partnership into practice

In recent years, the humanitarian sector has seen an explosive growth in the numbers and types of partnerships formed as a means of achieving more effective humanitarian outcomes. Cross-sector, cross-border and remote partnerships add layers of complexity to an already diverse understanding of what they stand for and mean. Working in partnership is a pre-condition of so many funding grants that the term is now used for a vast array of relationships some of which are not partnerships in the true sense of the word but just straightforward contractual arrangements.

The Principles of Partnership (Equality, Transparency, Results-Oriented Approach, Responsibility and Complementarity) were introduced by the Global Humanitarian Platform in 2007[1]; these provided a framework with guiding principles for humanitarian agencies to factor into their operations and improve engagement with national actors and civil society partners.  Anecdotal evidence from agencies reveals that putting these principles into practice has proved to be challenging; not least in the light of massive pressure on cross-sector partnerships to solve complex problems, funding and staff shortages coupled with the increase in large-scale emergencies.

The following lessons learnt add to the existing expertise emerging from within organisations that battle every day to operationalise these principles against obstacles. Lessons have also been gleaned from across different sectors and from the Partnership Brokers Association’s 10 years of tried and tested approaches.  There is emerging evidence that the role of an internal or external partnership broker[2] can add to the likelihood of success for a partnership.


Addressing equality and embedding equity into our partnerships is going to necessitate understanding not only our differing cultural norms but our institutional values and norms as well. As we increasingly widen the net of partners to work with in the sector, we are coming up against an even more diverse set of values and ways of working and equality will often mean very different things to partners. True equality could be seen as unattainable whereas the concept of equity can be useful in addressing issues of fairness and impartiality. Making time for partners to identify ways that would make them feel more equal and how they’d like issues of equity addressed, will deal with any assumptions and cultural bias head on and create healthy neutral ground to work from – the ones that have done this most effectively have done some of this ground work in a less hectic phase of an emergency.

The stage where we determine when and how to involve our partners will also be one of the most determining factors in whether we are able to address inequality in our partnerships. There is a vast difference between organisations signing up partners to their agenda and vision using their own words (i.e. even using the terms’ identifying’ and ‘selecting’ partners could be seen as a contradiction to creating real equality)  or genuinely wishing for a partnership where partners jointly come together to determine agendas, priorities, ways of working and agreed behaviours. We often pay unknowing lip service to equality and diversity that in so many words means, ‘we value diversity as long they think, act and feel like we do’.

One of the most revealing things about a partnership is how it runs meetings and how much collaborative leadership is allowed to surface in giving partners equal air time to speak, space to think and disagree without fear of marginalisation, and room to suggest alternative ways of seeing and doing things. Are we celebrating differences instead of just trying to eliminate them? Experimenting with other approaches needs courage and a willingness to go into the unknown where unexpected approaches may surface.

Lack of equity is most obvious when it comes to partners’ finances and varying levels of funding can alter partners’ perceptions of power and imbalance. By partners taking time to map both financial and non-financial resources, this  allows them to acknowledge and recognise the richness of partners’ overall contributions and thereby help to redress some of the imbalances whether they be real or perceived.


Adopting transparency measures is perhaps one of the best tools for cultivating trust in a partnership. Communicating expectations and assumptions in an open meeting or forum can set the scene for behaviour protocols and how we want to work in a partnership.

How and who we choose to communicate with will determine whether the partners can trust in each other. Successful partnerships are often those that design behaviour protocols (laying out expectations of how issues will be dealt with) which could include things such as dealing with:-

  • how the wellbeing and maintenance of the partnership is managed;
  • how  partners are expected to respond in the event of unexpected situations or outcomes;
  • the speed at which decisions are expected to be made;
  • the non-delivery of project goals – having a step by step approach to deal with the issues which is agreed by all partners;
  • major complaints or disputes- being open and sharing these with one another and jointly deciding on the course of action rather than dividing into camps to deal with the issue.

Transparency around language will inevitably unearth the many unspoken assumptions we all make around issues such as trust and mutual respect. By teasing out exactly how we would see those played out in a partnership context, will help to iron out any confusion or disparities between our various interpretations and understanding; being able to challenge a point made or the behaviour of a colleague might be one partners’ mark of feeling they are in a trusting partnership whereas in another culture it might be seen as a lack of respect.

Making room for expressing feelings at regular intervals either verbally or through mini surveys will go some way to preventing them from getting buried and surfacing later in distorted manners, making them more difficult to deal with. People coming from oral traditions favour conversation and informal communications over formal surveys and questionnaires; this could be done by making time at meetings or as a follow-up one on one conversation to share feedback on how partners felt a meeting went or what they thought of certain decisions.

Results-Oriented Approach

Separating process from the programme or project has been proven to significantly add to the probable success that both project and partnership can thrive. People often decide that dedicating time and resources to the ‘process’ is not being results oriented, whereas it is exactly what facilitates results. MoUs and contracts will iron out all the legalities and accountabilities of the project but will rarely address how these issues should be carried out in practice.

Programme / project:

By creating simple formal systems and structures unique to the partnership to work under – such as how resources should be allocated, how information should be shared, how decisions are to be made and drafting shared protocols on managing day to day work – the partnership can be freed up to reach its project milestones. Organisations have no doubt had the experience of tripping up against a partners’ myriad of organisational cultures, policies, structures, employment laws and different ways of working. These important issues can be enshrined in ‘ways of working’ documents or collaborative agreements.


Partnerships which make time to process and build their relationships with each other and acknowledge the communication and inter-personal skills necessary for maintaining them, also have a much better chance of success. This is where a partnership broker can add value. Some partnerships make time for team or relationship building at the outset and at regular intervals, or may offer its members communication training. Metrics for measuring success around process can include levels of information sharing, development of new ideas across partners, speed of decision making, numbers of disputes being referred up, and feedback on general wellbeing within the partnership through quick surveys or conversations.


Individual partners taking responsibility for what they and their organisation have signed up for is just the beginning of the journey for a partnership. Getting the internal buy-in from their own organisation will be an important and necessary step to ensure the health of the partnership. Determining who in their own organisation needs to know what about the partnership, and who else in the organisation needs to be an ambassador for the partnership is also important for consistency of behaviour and messaging. Many partnerships get de-railed when other parts of a partner organisation fail to recognise the importance of the other partners, or are not motivated sufficiently to serve the needs of the partnership. For example, inviting selected staff from communications or finance teams to attend occasional meetings can transmit the energy and enthusiasm of the partnership to others and increase overall responsibility taken for the actions of each organisation.

Enthusiastic founding members of a partnership may get replaced with less committed members when they move on or are moved to a different part of their organisation. By individual members taking responsibility for the continuity of the relationship and communicating the ethos, vision and working methods of the partnership to future members, will help to preserve the longevity of the partnership and prevent breakdown of working relationships along the way.


Creating group thinking space within the partnership through collaborative reflection and inquiry can allow for the generation of multiple, creative options for mutual gain.  The imperative for speed too often kills the chance for a partnership to reach interesting solutions and things can often break down when consensus is the goal.  Alignment can also often be a better alternative to consensus where differences can be worked with and accommodated rather than just stamped out. Take the example of a group struggling to decide on how to conduct an external consultation- it could either alienate those whose ideas are not taken up or provide the opportunity to use disagreements as a way of exploring more options and ultimately make collective understanding richer. This will enhance the possibility for mutual benefit being preserved and for partners to reap the benefits of why the partnership may have been formed in the first place.

Ensuring that all partners are able to achieve mutual benefit will likely necessitate us suspending our typical or ‘normal’ ways of working and look to operating differently; this might mean being more open to experimentation and suspending judgement about an approach until it’s tried. Trying to address the challenges of partnerships with old models of working will only yield limited results. Paradigm changes call for new ways of working and the notion of collaborative leadership calls on us all to see each other as resources for solutions and inspiration.


These partnership principles were always going to be more difficult to implement in practice than writing them up as well-meaning concepts in documents. The humanitarian sector perhaps poses double the challenge for implementation due to remote working, language preferences, complex emergency settings and shortages of time and resources. By taking a practical approach to each principle and asking key questions on how each of them could be made more tangible, it’s possible to breathe life into the unique personality of each partnership and open up channels for real innovation. Building trust will build stronger relationships which will provide the space to take more risks – all providing rich soil for innovating and solving complex humanitarian problems.

Editor’s note: for more on the humanitarian partnership broker as a change agent, you may like to read the author’s article published by the ODI, UK:


Catherine RussCatherine Russ is an accredited partnership broker with the Partnership Brokering Association and works as an independent partnership broker, trainer and facilitator.  She has occupied a number of senior roles in the humanitarian sector including working at Save the Children as Head of Learning and Professional Development where she contributed to the development of local and global partnerships for the Humanitarian Leadership Academy initiative. She has also been working closely with the Enhancing Learning for Research and Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA) Professionalization Initiative supporting a wide cross-sector partnership supporting professionalization in the sector. With an MSc in Continuing Education and Training, Catherine has been overseeing, delivering and evaluating learning programmes in Sri Lanka, Zambia, Kenya, Sudan, Pakistan, Chad and Haiti.



[2] Someone who facilitates, educates and supports partnerships to work more effectively. See PBA report What do partnership brokers do? An enquiry into practice


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