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Multi-Actor Partnerships

"Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success." Henry Ford

Source: Collective Leadership Institute

Multi-actor partnerships (MAP) are collaborative processes involving a diversity of actors in order to address complex problems together. Such multi-actor partnerships, multi-actor processes, or multi-stakeholder partnerships have gained increasing importance during the last two decades. They acknowledge the vast complexities and interconnectedness of issues. Many problems exceed the capability of any single actor to control, and are dubbed "messes" of "inherently wicked problems" (Dewulf 2007).

Such "messes" include issues related to poverty or hunger, and the social well-being of people at large. Just think about land rights issues, where diverse actors have conflicting interests, often with devastating effects on communities and their eco-systems. Or refer to exploitative working conditions of people which constitute the weakest link in many international value chains; for instance in tea production in India and Sri Lanka, the textile sector in Bangladesh, or the mining of cobalt in Congo. Arguably, such issues demand for collective efforts of key actors of the state, private sector and civil society in order to progress towards a common goal.

A prominent example of a multi-actor partnership is the "round table for the sustainable production of palm-oil" which is featured in the video above. The video illustrates how such a partnership can evolve and create a platform for change.

Currently, many multi-actor partnerships are under implementation and the approach has also become popular among government agencies, the European Union as well as the United Nations. Notably, the application of multi-actor partnerships are particularly promoted in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In the Sustainable Development Goal 17 which aims to strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development, the following targets are formulated:

17.16 Enhance the global partnership for sustainable development, complemented by multi-stakeholder partnerships that mobilize and share knowledge, expertise, technology and financial resources, to support the achievement of the sustainable development goals in all countries, in particular developing countries.

17.17 Encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships.

How can we apply Multi-actor Partnerships?

For civil society organisations (CSOs), collaborative multi-actor partnerships can be an interesting advocacy strategy, which can complement other strategies such as evidence-based advocacy, legal action or mass mobilization to advance change and influence policymaking. For development NGOs, the multi-actor partnership is an innovative way of engagement resulting in higher potential impact. Nevertheless, it also means that the organisation has to take up a new role which is inherently different from conventional partnerships with other civil society organisations, hence this has to be carefully considered.

Hivos has been assessing its engagement in five multi-actor initiatives ranging from a partnership for renewable energies in Sumba Iconic Island, Indonesia to the Malawi Campaign against Child Marriage. They concluded that "Hivos underestimated the practical implications and the extent of changes needed within the organisation for active engagement with multi-actor initiatives. These changes run the gamut, from changes in mindset and organizational culture to changes in staff competencies, procedures, and systems" (Hivos 2015). Moving from a grant-maker to a facilitator or partner in a multi-actor initiative means engaging with a greater diversity of network partners, becoming more visible, and putting the vision for change before the partnership with a certain civil society partner.

A growing body of knowledge has emerged in the last years to facilitate multi-actor partnerships towards successful social outcomes in a systematic and collaborative manner. The main publications emphasize that there is no "one solution that fits all" and each multi-actor partnership has to be designed and continuously re-assessed. Keeping this in mind, we recommend the following two guidelines:

For multi-actor partnerships to be successful, the tools and guidelines are broadly concerned with intertwined management and collaboration systems.

The Management System - adaptive and visionary

Managing a collaboration process such as a multi-actor partnership is quite different from managing projects, which have a designated project manager and are guided by log-frames and operational plans. Snowden and Boone explain that such project management works well for simple and complicated issues, but has its limitations when it comes to complex issues, where there is no clear right or wrong, and the effects of your actions cannot easily be foreseen. For complex more issues, we have to look beyond the log-frame.

1. Embrace adaptive management towards visionary change

Adaptive management is a structured and iterative process of robust decision making in the face of uncertainty, with an aim of reducing uncertainty over time via system monitoring. The system is well described with the German term "auf Sicht fahren" (translated as "driving by sight), which means our driving is guided by what we can see. Management focuses on the short term, while keeping the larger process and the goal or vision in mind. In the MSP guide, management is captured in an iterative cycle of adaptive planning - collaborative action - reflective monitoring. Necessarily, such a process requires extensive coordination and feedback loops, re-planning and strategizing as well as experimentation and learning - something many hands-on managers need to get used to.

The complexity of the issues also requires the management to re-focus on the vision again and again. The vision is often "systemic change" or change in relation to the entire system. Take the previous example of a vision of"Sustainable production of palm oil": This vision is distant and ambitious. It is attractive and it can only be achieved through system change. When developing the vision for your Multi-actor partnership: Think big and outside the box!

2. Focus on Process design

Adaptive management does not mean that there is no plan at all! Rather than using log-frames and operational plans, there is more emphasis on strategies, a broader process map as well as a detailed and short-term action plan.

A useful resource for understanding and developing a process map is the dialogic change model of the Collective Leadership Institute. It vividly illustrates the process and the different steps that can form a multi-actor partnership - from exploring and engaging to replicating or institutionalizing. When we used the model in workshops, it often had some important aha-effects among participants. Common quotes are:

"We usually jump the first phase of exploring and engaging and directly attempt to formalize networks to get things done. It is planned like this in the project proposal. As a result, there is no strong buy-in by stakeholders into the initiative."


"Mostly processes are driven by only one or few actors, and we quickly move into the action mode. We need to do much more during the first two phases in order to build strong and lasting initiatives."

3. Understand Network Models

I recently talked to a very experienced CEO of a large Indian NGO about becoming part of a network. He was very suspicious about the effectiveness and sustainability of networks. He had seen so many fail, mostly because the model and the "added values" were not clear to the network members.

Multi-actor partnerships are networks that need to be nurtured and regularly reinvented. We need to consider that they are purpose-driven, but at the same time, they also serve the needs of the partners. Multi-actor partnerships try to add value:

A. to people or the planet, for instance by saving Urangutans through sustainable palm oil production,

B. to the members or participants in the network e.g. the palm oil corporate that can sell certified oil at a higher price, or WWF for whom the partnership is helping to fulfill one of their core mandates.

This is one of the famous win-win-win situations. Urangutans, corporates and WWF, all win in the process. We propose that such value propositions in networks are mapped just like in business models, to understand why people engage in the process and in order to keep them engaged in the long-term.

The Collaboration System - effective and meaningful

Getting to a point in which many different stakeholders collaborate effectively and in a meaningful way is hard work with lots of meetings, events and communication. While the sequence of such activities is critical, how the different events unfold is even more important. We all have probably attended numerous meetings with serial monologues or debates without real outcomes and follow up. In multi-actor partnerships, they are not helpful.

In networks, meaningful dialogues are essential to make people collaborate effectively. Think about the best dialogues you have had in your life: Think of a situation in which you and your friends or colleagues came together to discuss some of the most pressing social issues. During such a process, your own thinking is constantly nurtured with new ideas and exciting inputs resulting in a level of dialogue in which all of you together could go far beyond what each of you is capable of doing without each other. This will lead to more insight, more innovation, and an ability to transform your own thinking and overcome your usual thought patterns and prejudices. Petra Künkel calls it generative dialogue. This is what we should aim for. It is a personally fulfilling win-win, well beyond the win-win which focuses just on the needs of organisations or communities.

4. Start with a core group

We suggest to build the collaboration system step by step and start with a small core group. Only a few highly committed people can make all the difference. These few people - motivated and emotionally invested - constitute a core group, which needs to be developed carefully. This corresponds with the "container for change" in Künkel's dialogic change model.

Starting small has numerous advantages: quicker and easier communication, faster action, and a higher probability of a generative dialogue towards a great concept for the multi-actor partnership. Logistics are also simpler and it is also cheaper than starting with large multi-stakeholder workshops which are more difficult to facilitate and manage. Preferably, people from different sectors, i.e. civil society, private sector or state are already involved in the initial core group, but they can also be brought into the core group step by step. Once the good collaboration is established in this smaller group, further outreach can begin.

5. Create empathy and purpose

The entire process, but also each event requires its own dramaturgy, just like a stage play. Empathy and purpose play critical parts to facilitate generative dialogue and collective action. Modern facilitation uses an arsenal of different tools to make people engage with each other and create a common understanding. Here are a few tricks:

  • Start by always creating a positive collaborative atmosphere in meetings. Sitting in circles, in a green and open environment, social evenings or extended coffee breaks may help in creating such an atmosphere.

  • Empathy can be created through reflection on roles and personalities, and one-on-one exchange in smaller groups.

  • Use analysis and visioning tools like the rich picture or a visioning session to create common understanding and a common purpose.

  • Often, dialogues need more space for struggle to create a common understanding among stakeholders. Use tools such as fish-bowls" or oxford-style debates to make people state their opinions and confront each other. However, avoid toxic debates.

  • Make sure the dialogue converges towards the end of a meeting and produce tangible results, which are documented and communicated.

6. Build facilitation skills:

Process facilitation is much more than just moderation. It is an integral part of the adaptive management of a process. Sometimes, the critical functions in process facilitation can be divided in:

  • Moderating, in order to get the stakeholders to collaborate and develop the "dramaturgy"

  • Convening, i.e. to bring people together and obtain political support, and

  • Catalysing, to stimulate thinking outside the box, to conceptualise and implement bold solutions.

All three functions need to be in the core group that is driving a process. It is essential to reflect on the capacities and the compositions of the team in order to improve the process facilitation of a multi-stakeholder partnership.

What are the advantages of a multi-actor partnership?

  • Can address complex issues

  • Has the potential to create large-scale social change

  • Can change the way actors think and operate towards a more collective and a more social engagement process

  • Builds the capacity of the stakeholders that are included in the partnership

What are the challenges?

  • Organisations are sometimes not prepared to engage in such collective action

  • Uneven playing field as the private sector and state are dominant

  • Mistrust among the different actors

  • Needs specific capacities and competencies among those involved

  • Overlaps with other initiatives



Collective Leadership Institute:

Herman Brouwer et al (2015): The MSP Guide: How to design and facilitate Multi-stakeholder Partnerships.

Petra Künkel et al, 2011: Stakeholder dialogues: Skills for better collaboration. In:

Snowden and Boone (2007): A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making. In: Harvard Business Report, November 2007.

About the Author:

Joachim Schwarz started his career with the UN before shifting to Civil Society. In Welthungerhilfe, he worked in leadership positions in Ethiopia and Sri Lanka, and as Regional Director for South Asia. Joachim is passionate about Civil Society and has been a main engine of the Civil Society Academy since its inception in 2014.


If you want to comment or if you require support in developing multi-actor partnerships, please contact: Joachim Schwarz

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