What is the real meaning of partnership?

Do relationships between donors and organisations have to involve some form of tension? Does there have to be a power dynamic at play between international non-governmental organisations (INGO) and civil society organisations (CSO)? Some may argue that this is not always the case, but we can’t deny that often it is.

Partnerships are fundamental to our work and our sector. Without partnerships it is difficult to resource our work and there is also often a richness in collaboration that allows for more to be achieved together than what can be done alone. Being in partnership acknowledges a mutually beneficial relationship that should, in theory, be based on respect. This, however, is often not how it is manifested in reality.

How did we get here?

When did we decide that one party was more important than the other? That one side’s opinions and perspectives should have more weight than the other? When two organisations come together, the assumption is that they are working towards a common objective but play two roles that are complementary but distinct. Let’s say I’m an INGO. I have my priorities that I am working towards but my scope and capacity for action have their limits. You are a civil society organisation in the Congo Basin that shares many of the same priorities, and you also have limits to what you do and can do. However, based on our shared priorities, each of us is indispensable. And what we can do together expands what is possible.

Whether we are a donor, an INGO or a CSO, we all have our roles to play and one often cannot exist without the other. Why then do we often find ourselves in a power struggle? Why does one need to be more dominant when fundamentally we are all working towards the same goals? Is it money? Is it the historical relationship between the north and the south? And regardless, should we accept that it continues this way?

Perhaps each of us individually thinks that what we are doing is serving the common cause, but when equality is not the foundation of a partnership, it will never reach its potential. A partnership that recognises the value of each party involved is certainly one that is richer and that has a greater chance of succeeding and of achieving the best results possible. And simply put, why wouldn’t you want it to be that way?

Where do we go from here?

When we fall into the trap of thinking that our way is the best way, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Let’s question ourselves. Let’s invite others to question us too. If this brings us closer to the true meaning of a partnership, then it can only be a good thing.

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About the author

Emma Almeras
Emma has been with Well Grounded since April 2012 and joined the team as it was setting up the office in Yaoundé, where she remained for her first year. Since March 2013, Emma has been based in the London office. Emma grew up in the United States and is fluent in English and French. In the past, Emma has worked with organisations supporting work on improving forest governance in the Congo Basin and Latin America. She has skills in project management, specifically in terms of donor relations, project administration and financial management. Emma also has experience in fundraising. Before joining Well Grounded, Emma worked in the non-profit sector developing new systems and implementation guidelines for the financial management of programmes, designing internal governance handbooks and supporting a wide range of programme backstopping activities. She also played a key role in the start-up of a non-profit organisation, which has given her an even greater appreciation for the challenges faced by small and young organisations.