Relationship health – strong partnerships essential to reach everyone with water, sanitation and hygiene

5 min read
Image: WaterAid/Andrew McConnell

Collaboration is one of WaterAid’s core values, and we know we can only hope to achieve our aims and vision of universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) by living this value. Louisa Gosling, WaterAid’s Quality Programmes Manager, shares how we re-assessed the quality of our partnerships, and what we have learned about keeping relationships healthy.

Collaboration, in practice, means working with many different types of organisation in different ways and for different purposes, at local, regional, and global levels. We work in partnerships, alliances, networks and consortia with a huge range of ‘others’ including government bodies, civil society organisations, NGOs, community-based organisations, academic institutions, donors, networks, media, and the private sector to try to make the biggest possible impact.

Like all relationships, these collaborations require skilful nurturing and time and attention to keep them productive and healthy. And every relationship is unique, with each party bringing its own particular mix of opportunities and challenges to the table. Everyone has to work hard to make the most of the opportunities and overcome the challenges.

Two-way empowerment

As a diverse global organisation WaterAid can share its expertise, networks, credibility, and WASH experience from across the world with those with whom we work; we can also draw on the knowledge, skills, resources, credibility, and networks of our partners.

Our ambitious vision makes it essential to empower others, especially those national organisations and institutions responsible for making sure sustainable WASH services are available for all. For this we need empowering and mutually accountable and respectful relationships that help develop stronger WASH actors and stronger links between stakeholders.

This is easier said than done, especially where WaterAid is channelling money to other organisations and so can be seen more as a donor than a partner. A focus on project outcomes can also inadvertently squeeze out attention to detail about the quality of the relationships.

So what to do? 

The first step to improving our partnership practice was to find out what partners think of us – what do we do well, and what do we need to do better? WaterAid commissioned Keystone Accountability to carry out a survey of our partners in 2014. We found that:

  • WaterAid has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as other INGOs that work with national partners, and, like other INGOs, we need to improve. We need to be more strategic in our relationships, and pay more attention to our partners’ long-term development goals.
  • Looking at WaterAid from the perspective of partners was a new and provocative experience for many people in the organisation. It has provided much food for thought about what we can do better to develop more equitable, respectful, and mutually accountable relationships.

So what have we done? 

  • We have carried out a programme of training in partnership skills with Partnerships in Practice (PiP) every year since 2013. This consists of a series of group assignments to analyse and understand better what partnership relationships look like, and how to nurture them. Some quotes from the participant feedback suggest this has had a positive impact: 

    “The training was an eye opener. As a new member of WaterAid, I had a better understanding of partnerships in WaterAid, the process and strategic thinking that goes into building partnerships.” 

    “It challenges people to start seeing things in a different way. Even for things that one has been doing for some time, the training brings a reality check and soul searching.”
  • We have encouraged colleagues in our country offices to use the partnership pillar of the BOND organisational health check to help diagnose their own strengths and weaknesses in partnership capacity. 
  • We have developed a partnership framework and toolkit to provide practical guidance on the processes of selection, assessment, capacity development, communication, conflict resolution, and partner exit, supported by a specific guide for finance staff to reinforce good partnership practice.

So the big question is: are these efforts to improve our practice having any discernible impact on our partners? Have they noticed any improvement in the way WaterAid treats them? To find out, we commissioned Keystone Accountability to re-run a light-touch version of the original survey. This time, we learned:

  • Partners have a good level of understanding of WaterAid’s plans and strategies, and have felt very involved in shaping WaterAid’s strategy, which is a good thing because 2015 has been a very intensive period of strategic planning. 
  • Overall, the average score from the questions has marginally increased over time, which suggests that some areas of partnership practice are getting better, although this does not represent a significant change and there is still room for improvement. 
  • When we asked our partners ‘The Ultimate Question’ that all big companies ask – ‘To what extent would partners recommend WaterAid to others?’ – we got a positive score of 42, which compares with favourably with other organisations.

Do we have more to learn? 

Emphatically, yes.

Our 2015–20 strategy requires complex collaborative relationships with other sectors and with many different types of organisation, from social movements to academic and research institutions. At the same time we need to work strategically and systematically with governments at all levels to strengthen their capacity to deliver sustainable WASH services. This is no easy task, and will require a high level of skill in collaborative working.

Through the PPA learning group on partnership, we have learned from other organisations’ experiences about the critical issues where all INGOs struggle, like accountability, measuring success in partnerships, and responsible exit from relationships. Resources are shared on the BOND website, and discussions have fed directly into development of our internal capacities.

What do we need to do more of? 

  • Examine in more detail how to relate to different types of organisations, especially government partners at all levels to help strengthen their capacity for WASH services 
  • Create more strategic processes to decide who to work with and how in the new country strategies. 
  • Work in a way that shows more respect for other organisations’ objectives, aspirations and identity. 
  • Focus on better communication; this is often where relationships break down – who, how, and when to communicate. 
  • Frequent relationship ‘health checks’ to look at what is working and what isn’t and take immediate action to overcome difficulties. 
  • Check our compliance procedures and how they can create a better enabling environment for good relationships. 
  • Plan for exit from the beginning. Discuss how and when the relationship will end. Avoid dependence, work towards sustainable systems where WaterAid is no longer necessary.
  • Continue to learn. Keep doing the training, have a community of practice, and learn from other organisations.

Louisa Gosling tweets as @LouisaGosling1