Betwixt & Between

Issue #3

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The role of partnership brokers in building a sense of ownership

Abstract: ‘A sense of ownership’ is a common expression in the partnership brokering world. Partnership brokers may question to what extent the partners, and hence the success of the partnership, depends on them. The current partnership brokering discourse has not delved deeply into the issue of ownership.

Based on the author’s own experience as a partnership broker for a consortium of nineteen NGOs, this paper explores the importance of the partnership broker for brokering ownership in a partnership. It attempts to make a case for the importance of ‘ownership’ as a construct for partnership brokers, why it deserves more attention; and explores some practical implications for partnership brokers.

The role of partnership brokers in building a sense of ownership

We as brokers feel like we are agents for change, and have a sense of ownership of that process, but in fact the consortium and the partners need to have a sense of ownership as well in order to make change a reality. It’s not that either party needs to have more ownership than the other, but the broker needs to realise that she also needs to ‘broker ownership’…[1]

‘A sense of ownership’ is a common expression in the partnership brokering world. And yet, discourse to date on partnership brokering has not explored fully the issue of ownership. This paper will attempt to make a case for the importance of ‘ownership’ as a construct for partnership brokers, and why it deserves more attention.

My main aim here is to address the question – how important is the partnership broker for brokering ownership in a partnership? This is inspired by my own experience as a partnership broker for a consortium of nineteen NGOs. It has sometimes been unclear to me whether the ownership of the partnership lies with the brokers, the partners, or both.

The concept of ownership

Ownership is mentioned frequently in the partnership brokering world. For example, consider the following quote:

“Oxfam’s partnership broker approach in Jamaica was rated as a highly ‘empowering’ model, helping to engender a strong sense of local ownership and self-determination which reflects local needs, interests and cultures”.[2]

It is not uncommon for people to put different interpretations on what they mean by ‘ownership’. Our general understanding of ownership relates to property –which can be an object or an idea. In the same way, we can make a distinction between (a) the ownership of partnership outcomes (which could be objects or physical things, such as a company or a research publication) and (b) the ownership of partnership processes and ideas. The former could be understood as a straightforward ‘functional’ or ‘technical’ ownership. Ownership in the latter sense, could also have ‘emotional’ or ideological’ ownership dimensions, and as such could be inherently more complex.[3] Emotional ownership is something that is ‘felt’ or ‘sensed’ by the broker or partners.

It is the interpretation of emotional ownership (of ideas and processes) that offers the most interesting potential, as this area is less well understood in the partnership context.

Some interpret emotional ownership as ‘having a stake in an idea or enterprise’ (to increase motivation and connection). This chimes with a Darwinian interpretation, where organisations function as organisms, choosing to change or collaborate if this supports their survival (through economic gains and company growth).[4] However, self-interest is not well-suited to mutual ownership, which is at the core of genuine partnerships. This interpretation resonates with Darwin’s opponents, such as Peter Kropotkin, who argues that cooperation and mutual aid are the most important factors in the evolution of species and the ability to survive.[5] “The unsociable species, those that do not share, are doomed to decay”.[6]

The authors of Theory U also argue that collaboration can only achieve its full potential once the partners see themselves as a component of a larger whole.[7] Their work cites many examples of how groups of people from different organisations and backgrounds can connect on a deeper level to start resolving complex, long-term social and systemic issues like climate change.

Given all this, ownership could be best defined as a motivational force, one of connection, engagement and participation that is by definition mutual rather than self-interested.

Ownership matters

To explore the definition further in the context of partnerships, we can test it both as a construct to understand a partnership better, and as a tool to evaluate the health of the partnership.

The first step in such an exploration is to consider whether partnership brokers themselves view ownership as being important.  In 2011, the Partnership Brokering Association (PBA) published its enquiry into practice, entitled ‘What do Partnership Brokers do?[8], drawing on the logbooks of approximately 250 partnership brokers globally to observe their reflections and experiences. This enquiry highlighted the importance that partnership brokers place on the idea of ownership as an expression of the partners’ motivation and commitment.

In defining how a partnership broker ‘adds value’, the following characteristic is emphasised often in the PBA enquiry: “the partnership broker has helped to ensure innovative, sustainable, and self-managing solutions”.[9] The emphasis on self-management relates strongly to ownership. The ideal end state is where the broker has made himself/herself unnecessary, and the partners fully own the partnership. The concept of ‘servant leadership’, which is emphasised in the study, is closely aligned to the idea of ownership. Expressions of servant leadership include “building partnering capacity to broker themselves” or by being “ready to let go”;[10] or seeing success as being the ability to “be invisible”.[11]

It is easier to recognise when ownership is absent. PBA’s enquiry identifies many difficult scenarios where the broker has become the ‘owner’ of the partnership, and the partners have withdrawn.[12]  Dependency on the broker is evident in such comments as partners were “leaving the broker to do it all” or that partners “would not communicate with each other without the broker”.[13]

The PBA enquiry also highlights some positive ways of working, designed to create a sense of ownership on behalf of the partners. These include the practice of ‘asking lots of questions’, as illustrated by the following reflection of a partnership broker:

“Asking well-chosen questions quickly became fundamental to the way I worked with them. For some this was irritating as they wanted ‘quick fix’ solutions but, on the whole, it started to work well and it certainly threw back responsibility onto the group….which was one of my intentions.” [14]

In addition to personal perceptions of partnership brokers of the kind in the PBA enquiry, case studies on partnerships can also help us test the relevance of ownership. For instance, a case study on collaboration between a UN agency and a large multinational corporation discusses a number of issues the partners faced, which can be related back to lack of ownership. From the start, the partnership had internal brokers who struggled to create ownership amongst a wider section within their organisation: “efforts to engage more staff in the project activities and take on wider ownership roles were unsuccessful”.[15] Mutual benefit proved difficult to achieve, and cultural differences between the two organisations ultimately made it difficult for the partners to fully commit and engage with the partnership’s goals.

Another case study examining a partnership brokering approach in Jamaica shows how shared ownership can create a completely different dynamic. In this instance, the NGO used an external partnership broker as an intermediary to bring a diverse set of organisations together to establish a social business in Jamaica. The broker played an important role in fostering responsibility and accountability amongst the partners for how the business was set up, developed and managed. She took care to create “a sense of ownership for decisions and actions” with the partners.[16]  Key attributes that helped the broker accomplish this was knowing “when to take a supporting/facilitative versus a directive/lead role”;   ‘asking difficult questions when it was required of her’; and setting a time limit on her tenure as a broker to the partnership.[17]

So ownership matters –what next?

Partnership brokers who are aware of the dilemmas mentioned above and embrace the idea that ownership matters are likely to be more conscious about their actions and how their interventions may affect the way partners embrace ownership.  There are, however, some practical implications for how partnership brokers go about encouraging or (perhaps unconsciously) discouraging a sense of ownership among the partners.

First of all, there is the issue of managing perceptions about ownership. A partnership broker often works behind the scenes – for instance, preparing proposals or other documents for the partners to consider, or sounding out options and opportunities with partners in advance of meetings. It is important that the broker does not try to get credit for such interventions or their outcomes, thus skewing the idea of ownership. It is better that the partners feel they had a role in the processes even if the work was done mostly by the broker and their own contribution came at the end or in bursts – the ownership for decisions or materials or other outcomes resides with them.

To cite an example, a partnership broker told me that she consciously lets the partners go to any meetings with the donor who funds the majority of the partnership work. In this way, the donor does not associate the partnership with the broker and the partners have a strong sense of ownership in representing the partnership externally on public platforms, speaking opportunities or in meetings with new partners and collaborators. The partnership broker is unlikely to become ‘the face of the partnership’, making it less difficult later on for him/her to disengage and move on.

Secondly, it is important that a partnership broker keeps questioning and reflecting on the effect of his / her actions, or the actions of the partners, on ownership. An aware partnership broker should continuously ask himself / herself when decisions or opportunities arise: how will this affect the ownership of the partners?

As one of the partnership brokers for the Start Network, the question of ownership has been a red thread through my personal partnership brokering practice.[18]  The partners – the 19 NGOs – initiated the partnership themselves, without an external broker, which provided a strong sense of ownership from the outset. However, given the complexities of managing Start Network process and resources, an external brokering Secretariat was hired of which I was a member.  This relationship worked well for the duration of the two-year pilot.

However, after the funding ended, the brokers took on significant responsibility for the future of the Start Network partnership, notably when they were given the mandate to explore new opportunities and possibilities on behalf of the partnership. The partners’ engagement dropped considerably: the brokers were driving the partnership, and the partners responded with caution and lack of engagement. The partners only engaged with the consortium through periodic board meetings. It was evident that more continuous engagement was needed.

The path to this was created during strategic away days, where the brokers asked pertinent questions, and where the partners found space to look ahead and set their own priorities.[19] This intervention was crucial for re-establishing a sense of ownership with the partners. An indication of this was exemplified by the reaction of some board members to the expansion of the partnership programme and the Secretariat team: they felt that this would cause them (the partners) to lose ownership. They had recollected the value of their previous ‘ownership’ experiences. It is important for the broker to also recognise this and ensure partner ownership.

Every partnership will differ on how ownership is managed and communicated. Engagement and ownership does not mean that everything needs to be decided by the collective or through time-intensive committee work. Different partners can be engaged at different times. It may even be a good opportunity for the broker to play to the partners’ strengths in engaging them with specific tasks. This will also help ensure that the broker does not end up doing all the work or making the partnership too dependent on him / her.

Letting go of ownership

Partnership brokering could be viewed as a process of building a sense of ownership amongst the partners, which in turn ensures their continued motivation and engagement to collaborate. Ownership matters because it eventually determines how the partnership will (or will not) be sustained without the broker. Nevertheless, ownership takes time to grow because “it takes time before diverse positions can be identified, recognised and reconciled”.[20]

There will come a time when having played his / her role in facilitating and fostering partner ownership, the broker has to move on. How would he / she feel about relinquishing any aspect of ownership? This issue of ‘letting go’ and ‘ownership’ merits further attention.

There are likely to be cases where brokers have a tendency to ‘own’ the partnership too much, making it impossible for both the partners and the broker to move on [21]. The PBA enquiry report states that “it may be that brokers have too much personal investment in the partnership succeeding to be able to make this judgement [of moving on] dispassionately.”[22]

This raises the question whether partnership brokers face the same challenge as many global development actors, who have been criticised for maintaining responsibility for development activities in underdeveloped countries for too long, thereby creating dependency. Do partnership brokers and development institutions who choose not to ‘work themselves out of a job’ fail to generate ownership and fail to exit?

Global development actors are starting to address this issue head on. For example, the World Bank now focuses on inclusive ownership, which generates “the engagement and support needed to sustain program activities after external assistance has ended.”[23] Similarly, in the partnership brokering context, both the partners and the broker will need to be aware of the dependency risk and should work together to develop mitigation strategies. In at least some instances, a time-bound partnership – where a broker sets a deadline for ownership, may prove effective at reducing the risk of dependency. In other cases, partnerships may be best served by a broker who takes a more process- or task-oriented route, identifying tasks for the partners to take on themselves, coaching them to be more self-managing, establishing a plan for how he/she can ‘step back’ as the partnership becomes increasingly owned by its members.

Whatever the option, it is clear that a partnership broker has a substantive role to play in brokering ownership of the partnership by its partners.


Marieke HounjetMarieke is the Head of Development and Partnerships for the Start Network, a consortium of 19 humanitarian NGOs. Through the work with this consortium since the beginning of 2010, Marieke has become fascinated with partnership brokering. She is an accredited partnership broker and has completed Level 2 Training Skills Certificate. In previous roles Marieke has worked in a research capacity for the Overseas Development Institute and the Institute for Development Studies.

Marieke holds an MSc from the London School of Economics and an MA from the University of Leipzig. To pursue this double Master Marieke received a Huygens Scholarship from the Dutch government in recognition of her achievements.



[1] Partnership Broker Accreditation Scheme, Marieke Hounjet, Final Logbook submission, 6 November 2013.

[2] Personal communication with Surinder Hundal, author of Evaluation of Oxfam Partnership Broker Approach in Jamaica, Report Submitted by The Partnership Brokering Project (PBP) of the International Business Leaders Forum 2011.

[3] Emotional ownership can be understood as where a group of people share some common values or concern about a social, environmental or economic challenge and want to tackle it together (personal communication with Surinder Hundal).

[4] Donnelly, Andrew.  On the Origin of Partnerships: The Modern Darwinist Guide to Brokering, Australian Museum.

[5] and

[6] Kropotkin, Peter (1972a), Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, New York, New York University Press.  p. 176, & Wikipedia entry, Peter Kropotkin:;, accessed 3 November 2013. This resonates with practical experience, as some have suggested that the partners in the Start Network (see footnote 18 for details on the network) should collaborate to address the risk that the NGO sector (including their organisations) are on a path to irrelevance. Rationally, this argument seems persuasive, but this does not seem to motivate the partners to collaborate in the first place. Almost the opposite seems to be the case, where the partners come together to get away from organisational competition (and the threat of extinction) and work for the collective good.

[7] Scharmer, Otto and Katrin Kaufer (2013): Leading from the Emerging Future: from ego-system to eco-system economies, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc, San Francisco. p. 178.

[8] Tennyson, Ros (2011): What do Partnership Brokers Do? An enquiry into practice, Partnership Brokers Association.

[9] Enquiry into practice: What do partnership brokers do? p. 5 (emphasis added).

[10] Ibid., p. 19.

[11] Ibid., p. 25.

[12] Personal communication with Joanne Burke (Accredited Partnership Broker with significant experience in the humanitarian sector) & as illustrated by the fact that ‘the partner dependency section’ in the enquiry contains a long list of quotes from partnership brokers.

[13] Enquiry into practice, p. 25.

[14] Ibid., p. 20.

[15] Stott, Leda (2007): Conflicting Cultures: Lessons from a UN-Business Partnership, International Business Leaders Forum, London, p. 11. Elsewhere, wider ownership within the partners of the partnership is seen as a success factor; see Serafin, Rafal, Mobilising Civil Society and Business Cooperation to Reverse Biodiversity Loss: Experience from the Earthwatch – Rio Tinto Biodiversity Partnership, The Partnering Initiative, p. 7.

[16] Hundal (2011). The broker clearly demonstrated the following behaviour: “encourages individual ownership of work & includes coaching, supporting & motivating others”

[17] Ibid.

[18] For more information and analysis on the Start Network, please see the case study that reviews the first three years of collaboration: Tennyson, Ros (2013): Dealing with Paradox: Stories and lessons from the first three years of consortium building, Partnership Brokers Association & Start Network.

[19] The other aspect that made these away days successful is that the partners were made aware of some of the partnership brokering theory and practice, which made them more aware of what partnership approach they were taking.

[20] Hundal (2011)

[21] This also features in Serafin, Rafal, Five Key Things I have Learned About Partnership Brokering, International Business Leaders Forum & Overseas Development Institute: “designing cross-sector partnerships as temporary endeavours for the purposes of dealing with a particular problem or issue was a very effective way of strengthening existing institutions and identifying gaps for establishing new institutional arrangements to fill gaps” (p. 49).

[22] Enquiry into practice: What do partnership brokers do? p. 27.

[23] Di Vinadio, Tomasso Balbo et all (2012): Strengthening Inclusive Ownership Through Capacity Development: Operational Lessons from Case Studies, Washington DC, World Bank Institute, p. 14. Furthermore, several major cross-country studies provide evidence supporting the hypothesis that ownership is critical to the success of development programmes, such as: World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group evaluation of Public Sector Reform (World Bank 2008), the multi-country study, Capacity, Change and Performance (Baser and Morgan 2008) and the Asian Development Bank’s 2007 Annual Evaluation Review.

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