The U.N. refugee agency and its NGO partner, International Rescue Committee run a health center at the Treguine camp for Darfurian refugees in Chad. How can an organization choose the right partner? Photo by: F. Noy / UNHCR

Partnership — is there a bigger global development buzzword in 2014?

We talk about it endlessly, but it’s often lip service or a necessity dictated by a funder. The complexity of health and development demands collaboration, yet despite best intentions, partnership is challenging and often just plain messy.

Organizations tend to default to their comfort zones and silos, such as discipline or disease-specific approaches. Combine this with perceived competition for limited funding, and the result is often program redundancy and missed opportunities for creativity and innovation.

Substantive collaboration can have an enormous impact, but the best partnerships take an equally enormous amount of time and effort. So how can you identify the partnerships worth going after?

1. Choose your partner carefully.

Consider their priorities and mission — are you aligned in your end goal? Is there institutional humility within the organization and with the team you seek to collaborate with? Who will get credit and under which circumstances? Establish ground rules early on — what does success look like for each of you? Just because you work on similar projects, on the same disease or in the same region isn’t reason in and of itself to align.

Choose partners committed to the end versus the means.

As an example, the Washington Global Health Alliance convened a group of partners to explore options for a joint project in Tanzania. The catalyst was the potential for a partnership with the Seattle Sounders professional soccer team. The four partners — World Vision, PATH, the University of Washington and Washington State University — all worked in the Arusha region, but, despite the fact that their U.S. headquarters are all in the same state, they hadn’t ever worked together. The organizations have different skills and different ways of doing business. It has taken two years of exploration, but because the organization leads each saw the potential of the project and were patient with each other, they kept at it. They devoted time, a precious commodity, to explore ways to do something together rather than focusing on the road blocks. They kept the ultimate goal in mind, and have developed a groundbreaking idea for a water and sanitation project that plays to each of their particular strengths.

2. Chemistry matters.

Trust is essential to any successful partnership, and that does not happen overnight. Take time to get to know your potential partner — yes, it can be a little like Internet dating. Consider not only their priorities, but also their culture and context. For the Global to Local project in Seattle, Swedish Hospital, Public Health Seattle & King County, HealthPoint, WGHA and the cities of SeaTac and Tukwila developed an initiative to use global health strategies to improve health outcomes domestically. Again, it took time and respect for each other’s input to develop a robust program, and especially to develop trust with the local community.

3. Develop a common language.

The acronyms used in global health and development are rivaled only by the military. At an international meeting a few years ago, after a day and a half of the U.K. Department for International Development this and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance that and maternal, newborn, and child health, being tossed around like confetti, I have a vivid memory of an executive from a multinational company standing up to plead: “I want to help out here, but I can’t figure out what you are talking about.” And it isn’t just so-called outsiders. Each discipline and subcategory is guilty of using specific dialects.

4.  Don’t assume anything — at all.

Assumptions can stop a project dead in its tracks before it even gets started. It’s particularly potent when in terms of speculation about potential partner motivation  — especially between so-called faith and secular organizations. Faith-based organizations are often wary of partnering with secular groups, and even groups from other faiths or denominations. The suspicion of secular and academic organizations toward faith-based organizations can be equally acute. Establishing a safe environment for cross-ideological dialogue is critical to a healthy partnership. In these cases, it is important to focus on common goals, rather than that which divides. A trusted neutral alliance has the potential to span ideological differences and convene faith-based and secular initiatives together around common goals.

5. Listen.

Here’s what I’ve learned from working in global health  — I need to shut up and listen. I need to meet people where they live, literally and figuratively. That includes NGOs, policymakers and donors, but most importantly of course, the people we serve and who end up being our true partners. After all, aren’t their lives the true point of the work we do?

Want to learn more? Check out the Healthy Means campaign site and tweet us using #HealthyMeans.

Healthy Means is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Concern Worldwide, Gavi, GlaxoSmithKline, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Johnson & Johnson and the United Nations Population Fund to showcase new ideas and ways we can work together to expand health care and live better lives.

About the author

  • Lisa cohen

    Lisa Cohen

    Lisa Cohen is the Executive Director of the Washington Global Health Alliance, a coalition of more than 60 leading global health research, development and civic organizations. WGHA activates governments, corporations and non-profits in Washington state through shared efforts to advance global health equity.