Theory of Change for Partnerships - Part 1: Interrelationships, System Mapping, and Good Collaboration

July 24, 2023

Partnerships 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 strategic initiatives that seek to change systems. Before becoming too fixed on the functional label or type of partnership, it’s important to describe why collaboration is an appropriate solution and the outcomes, activities, and inputs necessary for it to make an effective contribution.

Bringing together stakeholders, with a range of resources, skills, and ambitions, is a core function of many platforms and partnerships. While combining diverse perspectives provides the necessary conditions for fostering innovative solutions to complex problems, it’s not too difficult to see that the involvement of these diverse perspectives is also highly likely to create some challenges. Among these, is the fundamental question of ‘where are we going?’.

Arriving at a shared direction, north star, or overall ambition — and then agreeing on the supporting steps along the way — is of significant importance. Once a grand challenge has been named (e.g. embedding lived experience in mental health services, scaling social innovations for children’s health and welfare, accelerating the net-zero transition etc.), what is the unique contribution that this partnership intends to make, and how will it do so?

Generating a clear and shared vision for change, and the activities that will be needed to create this change, is, therefore, a critical step. While there are no fixed processes for generating this vision or its pathway of change, consulting and engaging stakeholders through individual or group-based processes is central to any successful approach. In our experience, options that promote this engagement, and assist in developing a shared understanding include:

1) Identifying key stakeholders and their interrelationships: Stakeholder maps provide a visual representation of the people and groups of relevance to a partnership, and their interconnections. Stakeholder Mapping is useful for collaborations at various stages of development, including in the early stages of planning and designing a partnership; when seeking to expand the reach of platforms to include new and different perspectives; or when starting a new initiative or project. Stakeholder maps bring clarity to the distribution of power, influence, and interest within the partnership and its broader context — helping to inform membership decisions, strategic directions, and areas for action.

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2) Mapping the system in which a partnership is embedded:

A system is defined as a:

“group of interacting, interrelated, and interdependent components that form a complex and unified whole” [1]

There are multiple ways of mapping these components and their interrelationships, including issue maps and causal loop diagrams — both of which are considered system mapping approaches. Mapping systems helps those within a partnership learn about what drives the systems their partnership is in, and in doing so, options for what it can do to help promote change.

[1] Coffman, J. (2007). A Framework for evaluating systems initiatives.

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3) Co-creating a partnership-specific Theory of Change: Theory of Change offers an outline of desired changes and the actions necessary to bring about such change. When developed through a quality process, it supports strategy development, adaptive management, and stakeholder engagement. In the context of partnerships, it is typical to expect that a complex set of activities will contribute to desired change and that the catalyzing effects of partnership activities will lead to long-term results. This is a departure from other ToCs that demonstrate clear linkages and causality between activities and outcomes, and can often be a stumbling point for teams that are accustomed to more linear ToC work. Exploring different pathways by which collaboration contributes to change, and the assumptions that underlie these pathways, is useful and important work.

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Key Considerations for Theory of Change for Partnerships

  • Partnerships and platforms are multi-level: involving foundations, activities, results, and impact domains
  • Results are temporal: they accrue at different rates for different levels
  • Result pathways are non-linear and contributory: with multiple actors shaping long-term partnership impacts
  • Collaboration results are inter-related: both within and across partnership levels
  • Platform levels are linked: through shared foundations, activities, and result areas.

Importantly, Theory of Change for Partnerships can be understood as both Process and Product.

Process: Through participatory engagement with stakeholders involved within a collaboration, usually in workshops and consultations, a range of perspectives are gathered to begin to articulate what change a partnership desires to create, and how that change is going to take place. This process is intentionally iterative and within multi-stakeholder platforms, it is necessary to draw from the views and vantage points of multiple sectors and perspectives.

Product: Theory of Change processes generate a visual and accompanying narrative description of how a desired change is going to take place. These products take many different forms showing links between activities and intended outcomes. Exploring these different pathways of change is useful and important when considering a partnership’s unique contribution.

Key Resources

To help your partnerships and platforms remain relevant and meaningful to the complex and continually shifting context in which they’re operating, check out Day Four Projects’ Good Partnership & Collaboration Resources. Download practical frameworks and contemporary thinking on developing a Theory of Change for your partnership – as well as how to measure and report on what your collaboration is doing and what has been achieved.

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Led by Dr. Cam Willis and Dr. Nic Vogelpoel, Day Four Projects is a research, evaluation, co-design, and knowledge translation consultancy focused on public and global health, social impact, sustainable development, and multi-stakeholder collaboration. We work with international and domestic partners from multilateral organisations, governments, NGOs, philanthropy, social enterprises, and think tanks on assignments that often involve:

  • Embedding lived experience in co-design
  • Scaling social innovation and collaboration
  • Developing and evaluating multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships
  • Designing whole-of-organisation impact measurement and management systems
  • Facilitating leadership action planning, system mapping, Theory of Change, and strategy design

If you have a project in mind, we’d love to hear from you.