How to make multistakeholder partnerships work

Multistakeholder initiatives are often the go-to option to take collective action on large-scale global issues. But should they be? Photo by: Teak Sato

The Sustainable Development Goals that map out the 2030 global development agenda are many things, not least of which, big, bold and ambitious. Achieving them will require initiatives of equally enormous scale that can leverage assets and resources across business, government and civil society.

Multistakeholder initiatives exist to do just that. They are large by design and when implemented effectively they can forge robust partnerships that span industries and countries. They often achieve the type of cross-sector scale that seems well suited to addressing the pressing challenges put forward by the SDGs. But while scale does matter, there is no guarantee that matching size-for-size is always the best strategy to tackle large global social issues.  

A new resource has been developed to challenge the conventional wisdom of multistakeholder initiatives and evaluate them as an option for collective action.

The report released this week by international nongovernmental organization Global Development Incubator — in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development and philanthropy investment firm Omidyar Network — establishes a practical user guide to help funders, implementers and interested stakeholders answer the “whether” and “how” of multistakeholder initiatives. First, it assesses whether they are the best strategy for collaboration on a social issue, and if so, how to set one up with efficiency and efficacy.

The growing norm

There has been a crescendo of activity with multistakeholder initiatives over the past few years. The report calculates that roughly 76 such initiatives have been launched since the 1970s, with the past 15 years alone seeing a fourfold increase. These include organizations like the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, the Better than Cash Alliance and the Global Partnership for Education. The SDG agenda makes it appear likely that uptick will continue.

But stakeholders who are directly involved in setting up these initiatives admit that it is necessary to take a step back in order to evaluate whether the hefty commitments involved in setting up multistakeholder initiatives are the proper course.

“In terms of value, we’ve felt relatively ill-equipped to delve into these questions,” Martin Tisne, a policy director for the Omidyar Network and an interviewee for the report told Devex.

Tisne was one of over 30 early funders and implementers who was interviewed for the study titled, “More than the sum of its parts: Making multistakeholder initiatives work.” Their insight and learnings were used to draw out lessons learned and aggregate best practices for establishing multistakeholder initiatives.

When they work

Multistakeholder initiatives are effective and powerful tools to solve collective action problems, but they are by no means the only tools.

At the most basic level, interested stakeholders must first determine whether a partnership as crosscutting as a multistakeholder model is the optimal course for collective action. If a problem is limited to a single country or a unique sector, other, more targeted partnerships or interventions are likely a better option.

Initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership, for example, which promotes public transparency and fights corruption, brings in stakeholders from across industries and national borders — in this case from banking, mining and human rights organizations. As a result of the variety of partners and broad scope it lends itself to using a multistakeholder platform.

The new report lays out a series of questions that should be asked before deciding to establish a multistakeholder initiative: Can the multistakeholder initiative address the issues at hand? Do the objectives of a project or a goal align with the strengths of the platform? Is a multistakeholder initiative the best format for the challenge? And, finally, but perhaps most importantly, is the initiative likely to succeed?

Pathway to success

Once the course is set, the challenge is creating an organization that functions well and achieves its objectives. Best practices will vary for a donor or implementer, but the report’s key takeaways generally coalesce around two main areas — due diligence and patient planning.

Even if the conditions are right, multistakeholder partnerships are risky undertakings because they operate in a crowded field. The boom in initiatives in recent years means that donors, governments, NGOs and the private sector are increasingly being asked to participate in new alliances. Funding, time and political will are all scarce.

A key takeaway, therefore, is that “multistakeholder initiatives are not for the faint of heart,” Tisne advised. Institutions should be set up with clearly defined objectives and strategic action plans from the start to avoid a stalemate in advancing the agenda.

“For the first three years, every meeting was spent trying to rehash the same conversation about aligning goals and objectives and trying to bring all partners onto the same page,” one interviewee cited in the report cautioned.

That can often be avoided by engaging the right people from the start. From an implementer’s perspective, “fill the table before you fill the tent,” said Tisne, referring to the selectivity of early stakeholders. “Pick like-minded, but relatively diverse people from the start, then over time bring in other groups. We really have to be weary of bringing too many people in.”

For donors and funders, multistakeholder initiatives are long-term investments that should be treated with a similar approach as a patient capital model for a startup venture. “Give it a good amount of core funding, but don’t cripple it as an overfunded company,” Tisne said.

The global or social scope of the agenda therefore requires a long-term funding horizon, often around three to five years, the report suggested. Funding from a project or grant perspective, marked by short-term targets or annual targets, will likely diverge from the social impact agenda that a multistakeholder initiative is trying to accomplish.

Lastly, when the parameters are in place and the model has been developed, the report encourages donors and implementers to galvanize their stakeholders when the initiative starts up. Often this can come in the form of an elaborate high-profile launch event.

While this may run the risk of projecting more smoke and mirrors, a high-profile event for a major initiative can generate deep political will and convey robust commitment from political, business and civil society leaders.

Tisne recounted that the Open Government Partnership, which he played a key role in establishing, has grown from eight to 69 countries in its four years in part because of the participation of key heads of state at signature events, including U.S. President Barack Obama at its annual meeting last year.

Current issues on the global development agenda will likely result in the formation of more multistakeholder initiatives that engage a wide base of stakeholders across countries and industrial sectors. Whether the growth in this model is effective is yet to be seen, but it seems clear that it will revolve around a key set of factors. Those initiatives that will likely be particularly successful will focus on thorough planning, preparation and long-term perspectives.

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About the author

  • Naki B. Mendoza

    Naki is a former reporter, he covered the intersection of business and international development. Prior to Devex he was a Latin America reporter for Energy Intelligence covering corporate investments and political risks in the region’s energy sector. His previous assignments abroad have posted him throughout Europe, South America, and Australia.