A first look at failed Clinton Global Initiative commitments

    On Monday the Clinton Global Initiative released its first analysis of failed commitments. Devex took a look at the report before its publications — and spoke with a few experts — to determine the lessons that can already be learned from it to form stronger, more successful partnerships.  Photo by: Adam Schultz / Clinton Global Initiative

    When the Clinton Global Initiative was founded, it was with the goal of uniting global leaders from business, government and the nonprofit sector to take action on some of the world’s greatest challenges. The method: actionable, specific commitments.

    Those commitments have remained central to CGI’s mission — and now the initiative is revealing new insights into what makes them succeed and, sometimes, fail.

    On Monday CGI is releasing an analysis of failed commitments, and will also update its online database to include the commitments that did not come to fruition. The initiative shared the data and results of their study exclusively with Devex in advance of the release.

    CGI commitments are pledges by individuals, organizations or groups of partners to tackle a specific challenge, which are coordinated through CGI but are not funded or implemented by the initiative. Between 2005 and 2015 there were 3,452 commitments made through CGI. Of those, according to the newly disclosed report, six percent were “unfulfilled,” or failed.

    But that number might not tell the whole story. An additional 11 percent of commitments in the report — and excluded from the analysis — are labeled “unresponsive,” which means that no progress has been reported in more than two years. It’s likely that some, or perhaps most, of those commitments also didn’t succeed, though impossible to determine due to a lack of information. A further 2 percent of commitments are stalled.

    Still, the analysis shows a surprisingly high rate of success, especially as most business-driven transformational partnerships tend to fail about as often as they succeed, said Darian Stibbe, executive director of The Partnering Initiative.

    But those tend to be more difficult than transactional partnerships that are essentially philanthropic commitments, he said.

    By the numbers

    There were 3,452 commitments made between 2005 and 2015:

    6 percent of commitments are unfulfilled (have failed)

    11 percent are unresponsive (no progress has been reported for at least two years)

    2 percent are stalled

    36 percent are ongoing

    45 percent are completed

    The data analyzed by CGI is a look at partnerships that failed to get off the ground, not those that were carried out to some extent. A commitment can be considered complete according to CGI records even if it fails to meet the initial goals set out when it was announced.

    Stibbe, executive director of The Partnering Initiative, calls it the “Davos syndrome,” or the tendency for CEOs — such as those who attend the World Economic Forum gatherings in Davos — to announce big partnerships or commitments that are not sufficiently thought through and suffer when it comes to implementation.

    And while CGI’s newly released data may offer broad insights, it does not provide the depth of information that would be needed to analyze what led to partnership failure or what could lead to fully achieving goals — in part because the information CGI collects is self-reported by commitment makers who use a variety of metrics and benchmarks to measure success.

    In CGI’s view, the data reinforces some of the anecdotal trends the initiative has noticed about what works for their members and what doesn’t. The report is designed to help share lessons that can help CGI commitments and partnerships writ large be more successful, according to Elsa Palanza, CGI’s director of commitments.

    “I think there’s something really meaty about this partnerships question and a lot of people are talking about it right now, and to the extent that we can contribute to that conversation we’d love to do that,” Palanza told Devex. “When you dig into how people form partnerships and the work that it takes on the front end to make sure those are really on solid ground before you enter into the work itself, I think is just really something I would encourage the whole community to think about."

    Lessons learned

    At CGI’s annual meeting in 2010, Operation Hope — with partners including the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency, UNICEF and the National Organizations for the Advancement of Haitians — announced a commitment to expand its model to Haiti and provide financial life management skills to youth and young adults to help Haiti’s economy following the 2010 earthquake.

    It didn’t work.

    “Haiti was a mess,” said John Hope Bryant, the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation Hope. “We had a really hard time finding honest brokers.”

    After struggling to gain a foothold for a year, the organization had to acknowledge it wasn’t going to work at that time and moved on, he said.


    The United States, India, Kenya, Uganda and Haiti had the highest number of failed commitments.

    Those five countries also had the largest number of total commitments

    The rate of failure was consistent regardless of the location

    India and Haiti saw an uptick in the number of commitments, and a corresponding increase in failures, after the CGI International meeting in Hong Kong and following the launch of the Haiti Action Network.

    In the places the organization has since gone on to work — South Africa, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates — it has made sure that it had or was able to build the local relationships it needed.

    The reasons CGI commitments fail to get off the ground range widely — from problems with a project plan to shifting organizational priorities to the most common among CGI commitments: lack of funding. These are fundamental challenges that speak to the ability of a commitment to begin its work.

    About 27 percent of commitments that failed did so for lack of resources, according to the report, with an uptick between 2007 and 2009 during the global financial crisis. The lesson from that data seems clear: Don’t commit to doing something unless you already have the resources or have a clear plan to obtain them.

    Some of the other findings also point to lessons or pitfalls to avoid.

    The subject or issue area with most failed partnerships is information and communications technology, or ICT. Those partnerships tend to have high barriers to entry, including large startup costs and local market limitations, said Joe Ballard, CGI’s deputy director of commitments.

    The lesson there isn’t necessarily “Don’t do partnerships in ICT,” but that risk assessments at the formation stage to identify challenges and build a system are critical to success, he said.

    That type of analysis should be done in any robust partnering process, The Partnering Initiative’s Stibbe said. Many partnerships, and particularly unsuccessful ones, don’t go through a sufficient up-front process to get stakeholders to a point where they have built trust and talked through challenges, divided responsibility and can navigate road bumps, he added.

    A partnership checklist at the start can be helpful, and developing a clear partnering agreement is critical, particularly in partnerships that seek to be transformational and not transactional or philanthropic.

    Stibbe offers a few other lessons: Start small and don’t aim to do too much early on, ensure that the agreement goes beyond money and creates a shared mission and values, measure specific targets that are determined not by dollars but by the value created, and review how the partnership is operating on a regular basis.

    There is often a temptation, particularly with nongovernmental organizations in need of funding, to be pulled toward a more transactional arrangement, but the problem there, in addition to a likely reduced impact, is a misalignment of incentives, he said.

    Large international NGOs such as Save the Children, Mercy Corps and World Vision were all part of commitments that were made and fell short.

    World Vision, which was involved in a few of the commitments that didn’t succeed, was unable to comment on the specifics in time for inclusion in this article, but said that their approach to partnerships and how they’re structured has evolved as they have learned what works.

    “What we have learned is that there needs to be a much more intentional approach to partnerships — and to ensuring they work for the most vulnerable children,” wrote Mike Wisheart, senior adviser of corporate engagement for World Vision International in an email. “Partnerships to achieve results don’t automatically happen, and they don’t automatically happen well.”

    Making some changes

    CGI wants to help more commitments succeed, and to do so they’re making some changes in an effort to promote higher standards and encourage greater accountability.

    The top four reasons commitments failed:

    A lack of funding — 27 percent of commitments

    Shift in organizational priorities — 15 percent

    Issues with the project plan — 10 percent

    No reason provided — 23 percent

    The fact that there is no information provided about what went wrong in 44 of the 190 unfulfilled commitments indicates that there may still be some challenges in accountability, tracking and reporting on commitments, but it’s something CGI has recognized.

    “One of our challenges that I think is worth noting in the context of demystifying challenges and failures and roadblocks is there is a percentage of our commitment makers who have unfulfilled commitments who didn’t tell us why their commitments are unfulfilled,” Ballard said.

    It’s disappointing because it’s a missed opportunity, he added. But it’s also part of what is motivating CGI to release this report and “try to socialize a culture where people are more and more forthcoming.”  

    One way they’re doing that is by making all failed commitments public. CGI’s common practice in the past was not to list failed commitments on its website, but in April it announced it will now list all commitments, regardless of success, online. They hope that by trying to influence the culture, they can push commitment makers to be more transparent.

    And CGI is taking some of the lessons and bringing them into the process of how they engage with commitment makers, Ballard said.

    Many of the changes center around the process of making the commitment. The commitment form will now have a question about how partners will mitigate risk to encourage or require them to have that conversation at the start of the partnership. While that form has asked what percentage of the funds are already in place, CGI will now require that every commitment have at least 30 percent, with 50 percent recommended, of its funding in place when it is announced.

    They’ve already revamped the recommendations for metrics on that same commitment form, drawing from industry standards in the different fields, and will continue to encourage those it works with to actively measure their progress.

    But more than adjusting the form, CGI is also standardizing their engagement with commitment makers early on through webinars or teleconferences or individual conversations so they can share more information and insights up front.

    “We’re always in this balancing act of making our form useful and driving our members to better practice without overburdening them,” Ballard said.  

    As the development community increasingly includes a diversity of actors looking to work together to address global goals, figuring out how to improve partnerships is critical. Holding partners accountable and creating universal systems for measurement will be key challenges, not only for organizations such as CGI, but for the development community as a whole.

    Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

    About the author

    • Adva Saldinger

      Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.