The question mark over partnerships? How to build a culture of inquiry that supports learning and evaluation.
There is a growing number of Multi-Stakeholder Platforms and Partnerships (MSPs), networks, alliances, and coalitions formed to tackle complex problems, and transform the systems that underlie them. How and ever, in the flurry of their design, bringing the right people together, and supporting innovative collaborative ventures, we’ve squeezed out the space required for critically reviewing our progress – for examining and reflecting on what our partnerships have done, and the differences they have made.
Rather than seeking to learn about what works, for whom, how, and the results they contribute to, we have begun to see a focus on equating success with things already known.
Be wary of any evaluation that seeks to ‘prove what we already know’ or ‘confirm anecdotes we’ve heard’. These are common requests we hear from partnerships and platforms, and they are clear signs that a culture of inquiry has not yet been established.
As a result, many MSPs struggle to demonstrate progress and achievements, pivot, or course correct when circumstances change, or secure financial support for their ongoing efforts.
A culture of inquiry is one that encourages curiosity, experimentation, and risk taking. It supports learning and evaluation focused on the structural features of the MSP, the activities undertaken, as well as the outcomes it generates for its stakeholders and the systems of interest. Many MSPs struggle with creating these conditions, which are not always supported by the broader systems and institutions in which they are placed.
But what if learning and evaluation wasn’t an afterthought? What if learning and evaluation was seen and recognised as essential for a partnership to deliver on its goals and contribute meaningfully to the complex systems it intends to change?
MOVING TOWARD A CULTURE OF LEARNING AND EVALUATION
Partnerships who invest their time, skills, and resources in collaborative working do so because of a belief in the power of collaboration to discover and foster innovation and sustainable change. They are curious and hopeful about what the partnership might learn. Learning and evaluation generates the knowledge for our global efforts to be better partners, create better partnerships, and implement more effective systems change efforts.
Examining what actions lead to what outcomes, how, and why requires a willingness to unearth poor decisions, false assumptions, ineffective investments, and mistakes as well as successes and achievements. Trust, resolve, and co-ownership of wins and losses are the heart of inquisitive culture.
The pathways to this culture are paved with obstacles: lack of money, time, enthusiasm, skills, and fear are among those commonly encountered. There’s no one way to overcome these obstacles, and different partnerships will require different actions at different points.
Building a culture of inquiry requires stewardship from distributed leadership, which means both top down and bottom-up leadership. This includes those within the secretariat, working groups, and other members: all of whom need to be encouraged to ask questions about the partnership and the work it does. When done well, this results in an environment where learning is a part of what everyone does, and what they are expected to do.
Increasingly, partnerships are investing time, energy and resources into learning and evaluation systems. Gavi – The Vaccine Alliance provides a powerful example. Gavi was established in response to a complex problem: how to increase childhood immunisation coverage globally, and across disease categories. Since its beginnings, the influence of Gavi has been profound: on how pharmaceuticals are discovered and delivered, how immunisation programs have been financed and funded, and ultimately on the number of children vaccinated through routine programs. With learning and evaluation at the centre of what the Alliance does, Alliance members and the Secretariat are able to continually learn about and adapt to the challenges of the day (e.g. COVID-19), and to develop, test and deliver innovative solutions.
WHERE TO START?
We encourage all partnerships to strive toward a culture of inquiry that supports learning and evaluation. And to do so, those working in partnership might consider the following three actions as places to start:
- Identify where learning and evaluation may help: this may relate to challenges in communicating your partnership’s unique value; attracting new partners; securing financial resources; making decisions about what to do more of, less of, or to stop.
- Foster champions: go where the energy is, find those partners who are interested, capable, or engaged in learning work and bring them together.
- Start small: gather information to hand; celebrate achievements; find and share examples from other partnerships invested in learning and evaluation.
Day Four Projects has spent time working in and with a range of partnerships and platforms that are intentionally focusing on learning and evaluation, and in doing so, also building a culture of inquiry. We’d challenge any hard and fast rules on how to go about doing this — our experience suggests that creating space for people to reflect, talk and ask questions, is likely a good place to start. We recognise that partnerships are at different stages of evolution, and that cultural readiness and appetite for learning must become part of the fabric of any partnership seeking to make real change.
How to build, promote, and nurture a culture of inquiry in your partnership?
- Build relationships with other MSPs: Explore their approaches to learning and evaluation – what are their strategic learning needs, objectives, and questions; what are they measuring and how; what about this approach works and what doesn’t?
- Domain tracking: There’s a wealth of information and experience on effective platforms and partnerships. Conducting environmental scans and rapid reviews, and participating in online events and training, are great ways to connect with the MSP knowledge base, particularly those focused on learning and evaluation. This includes the Partnership Brokers Association, an international professional body for those managing and developing collaboration processes for social impact and sustainability.
- Look back: Encourage regular reflections on the conditions and factors that enabled your success and how those same factors are at play now.
- Experimentation and calculated risk: Identify partnership features open to change and those that are less movable. Encourage groups and leaders to explore what others have done, what can shift about who is part of the MSP, what it does, and how it works.
- Ask questions: Encourage stakeholders, including the secretariat, to ask questions of your MSP – of its ambitions, goals, structure, key functions, core attributes, the interrelationships it fosters, the limits of its reach and influence, and the unique perspectives that it includes and those it excludes. Host roundtables to promote exploration: bring different combinations of members together (in-person or virtually) to find out what interests they have, promote divergent thinking, and build consensus. In doing so, incorporate the needs and requirements of donors and funders.
- Build a team interested in learning: Recruit inquisitive and curious people; build learning into roles and responsibilities; incentivise sharing of insights; and promote collegiality through formal and informal knowledge sharing mechanisms.
- Make time for inquiry: Carve out dedicated time to pause, reflect and consider what you need and want to learn about. Preserve time alone and together where learning and evaluation are front and centre – commit to this time together, whether it be short or long, and hold each other to account.
- Engage a Learning Partner: In our experience, a Learning Partner is a useful addition to the team. Learning Partners come in different forms – from an individual, to an organisation – and are committed to championing critical reflection, shared wisdom, a culture of inquiry, and valuing of evidence (in a range of forms). Investing in a Learning Partner is also a signal to the MSP and its systems of interest of a sophisticated and energised partnership – where curiosity and improvement are rewarded and encouraged.