5 key ingredients for strengthening multi-stakeholder partnerships

December 14, 2022

Encouraged by global institutions and initiatives, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and World Economic Forum’s Centre for Nature and Climate, Multi-Stakeholder Platforms and Partnerships (or MSPs as they are often called) have emerged as critical vehicles for collaboratively tackling the complex problems that cross sectoral, jurisdictional, and professional borders. Examples of MSPs collaborating for systems change include:

To date, the majority of focus has been on the doing of MSPs: how diverse actors from business, government, and civil society organisations broker, build, launch, fund, sustain, and grow MSPs to advance global and local impact.

As their number, reach and ambitions grow, there’s an increasing interest in understanding if and how MSPs work, for whom, and why?

Continuous learning and evaluation is essential if an MSP is to remain relevant and meaningful to the complex and continually shifting context in which it operates. How and ever, despite the benefits, the reality is that many evaluative efforts, including those grounded in results based accountability, struggle to provide meaningful and useful data for understanding and improving MSPs.

What makes evaluating partnerships for systems change different?

  1. Traditional notions of causality, that specify clear cause and effect relationships, are rarely the case in MSPs. Instead, MSPs contribute to outcomes through multiple pathways and combinations of activities.
  2. The effects or possible results of MSPs aren’t always clear at the start, and may take a long time to accrue — a strategic dialogue, for example, may spark new ideas among participants, leading to unanticipated and unplanned for activities, that generate results for unknown benefactors. Results such as these, along with new ways of knowing and doing, are often difficult to define, and challenging to measure. Learning and evaluation needs to preserve space for these emergent and sometimes intangible results.
  3. MSPs are rarely fixed — they adapt and change over time as stakeholders come and go; contexts shift; funding increases or decreases; and directions change. Rigid adherence to pre-specified measures of success will underestimate the value of a platform.
  4. There are often no natural comparators or counterfactuals: what would have happened without the MSP? The value of learning and evaluation systems for MSPs needs to be established through different mechanisms than what many are used to.

Given these challenges, how can those working in MSPs build learning and evaluation into the fabric of their MSP?

Drawing on our work with MSPs from around the world, over the coming months we’ll explore in depth what we're calling the Five Key Ingredients for strengthening MSPs through continuous learning and evaluation:

  1. A culture of inquiry that supports learning: A culture of inquiry is one that encourages and supports curiosity, experimentation and risk taking. It requires trust among those involved and a tolerance for failure. A culture of inquiry is not easy to create - many MSPs struggle with creating these conditions, which are not always supported by the broader systems in which MSPs are placed. Examining the structures, functions and outcomes of an MSP requires a willingness to unearth mistakes, poor decisions, false assumptions and ineffective investments – as well as successes and achievements. Trust, resolve and co-ownership of wins and losses are therefore at the heart of an inquisitive culture for MSPs.
  2. A clear and shared vision for change and the MSP’s unique contribution: MSPs play important roles in responding to complex problems, and do so through a variety of mechanisms - such as those focused on exchanging knowledge among stakeholders; developing and monitoring new standards and norms; and launching new strategic initiatives that seek to change systems. Before becoming too fixed on the functional label or type of MSP, it’s important to describe why an MSP is an appropriate solution, and the outcomes, activities and inputs that will be necessary for it to make an effective contribution.
  3. A set of agreed indicators for assessing progress: A shared understanding of the MSP’s vision for change and unique contributions, documented in a MSP theory of change, provides the foundations for developing indicators of change. Indicators can help to simplify complex concepts and constructs (e.g. public beliefs, community awareness, trust), providing insights that can be tracked, shared and learned from. Indicators allow comparisons to be made, such as between countries, organisations (or even MSPs), over time, or against one or more standards.
  4. A practical plan for gathering, analysing and using data: Like MSPs themselves, continuous learning and evaluation requires ongoing adaptation as people, problems and priorities change. Implementation plans for continuous learning and evaluation provide clarity around what will be needed to gather information, analyse and understand that information, and evolve a learning approach. Gathering data that are available (and understanding their limitations and bias), developing case studies that bring concepts to life, generating an initial ‘product’ using these data, and encouraging early reflections, are all important steps in promoting learning.
  5. A clear approach for reporting and communicating insights: Continuous learning and evaluation is intended to be useful, particularly for informing the decisions we make about an MSP. Internal audiences, including MSP leaders, working groups, and stakeholders will have specific needs and interests, while those external to the platform will have others. Learning and evaluation help to generate momentum and further interest in the work of the MSP, attract new members, increase investment in the MSP’s work, and publicly disseminate results from its activities.