By Rod MacLeod

How do you assess the added value of working with other organisations in strategic alliances? INTRAC has been working with Joining Forces (a consortium of six leading child rights agencies – Child Fund Alliance, Plan International, Save the Children International, SOS Children’s Villages International, Terre des Hommes and World Vision International) , the Global Partnership team of Plan International and EM2030 (Equal Measures – a partnership which generates data to be used for advocacy on gender equality) to explore this question.

The consultancy involved interviews and background research, leading up to a workshop to try and come up with some practical answers.

Organisations are now engaged with numerous networks, coalitions and alliances. One INGO recently identified 33 ‘priority’ such collaborations in which it is involved. But on what basis are decisions made to join? How can we assess if collaborations are working or not? What is the real impact of coming together? Is it always worth it, given the (often considerable) investment of time and resources?

Craig Dearden-Phillips in Third Sector, June 2012, thinks not: “I have long wondered how much donated money is wasted in the charity sector on useless conversations and events along the lines of: ‘Let’s collaborate’.  So why do we all dance to the discordant tune of collaboration? One reason is that, as the ‘for-good’ sector, we are slaves to an orthodoxy that collaboration always leads to better outcomes”.

To address such doubts, a credible process for measuring the added value of collaboration is required.

Typically, M&E in this area monitors joint activities (e.g. workshops held, reports produced), usually attempts to assess the downstream impact of a strategic alliance (e.g. whether SDGs were influenced in a desired direction) and sometimes examines the health of a collaboration (e.g. positive attitudes, active member participation). But it is much rarer – and more difficult – to assess how the ‘jointness’ of the approach actually adds value to its impact. 

A useful analogy of the area we are trying to measure here is the added power of a tributary joining a river.

A useful analogy of the area we are trying to measure here is the added power of a tributary joining a river. What is of particular interest here is not just the water flow in the tributary, nor downstream in the river (although both are important to get the full picture), but what is happening just as the tributary enters and starts to affect the river. It is where the tributaries join that the extra power is evident – in the turmoil and spray resulting in the pool below.  Such is the potential additional power of collaborations – bringing in extra weight to processes that the individual organisations might attempt by themselves.

Given that many such collaborations come together for advocacy purposes, this is already a notoriously difficult area in which to capture change and identify contributions at the best of times.

A complicating factor is that assessing added value needs not just to examine the impact of the strategic alliance, but to compare that with what would have taken place if the member agencies were acting independently. Expressed as an equation, this looks like:

There may be some evidence for this counterfactual (e.g. comparisons with what had occurred prior to the consortium being established), but there will probably also be a need for a degree of estimation. This can be addressed through two distinct, but linked approaches.

Firstly, identifying, prioritising and assessing the ‘Collaborative Advantages’ of working together in a given instance. The most useful document I have found in this process is Maximising the Impact of Partnerships for the SDGs (2019) by Stibbe, Reid and Gilbert of The Partnering Initiative.  Collaborative Advantages are things like complementarity, synergy, critical mass, and shared learning that make a joint approach more effective in achieving Intermediate Outcomes than would be the case if working separately. Essentially you identify which Collaborative Advantages are applicable in a given situation, which of these are the most significant, describe how they will work and develop appropriate indicators accordingly. If, for example, critical mass is considered particularly important, then it might be assessed in terms of access to decision makers or media coverage as compared to previously. The more specific the intervention and intended outcome, the easier this is to do.

Secondly, assessing the ultimate Outcomes and Impact of the process and then working backwards, applying Contribution Analysis to assess the extent to which the ‘jointness’ of the approach made a difference. This needs to be seen in comparison to other factors which are also likely to have influenced the situation. Such factors (and actors) might include what the decision makers were minded to do anyway, the influence of other advocacy efforts, pressure from donors, public opinion or whatever. In practice, this will often be hard to assess precisely. For example, if a consortium is seeking a policy change, then ideally you will get access to the decision makers (and other informed stakeholders), who can then be asked the reasons for the choices they made. But even with such access, there are reasons why they might not want to be completely frank. For example, decision makers may not want to concede they were influenced by others. Even with complete honesty, they may find it hard to answer with certainty whether they would have responded to the advocacy if it came from one member rather than the entire consortium. But it should be able to give some sense, which can be corroborated by others with inside knowledge.

These two approaches work from different ends of the Theory of Change, but should link up.  Explaining the contribution of the ‘jointness’ in the second approach will likely hinge on the Collaborative Advantages defined in the first.

In addition to the overall value added in terms of what a Strategic Alliance is trying achieve, it must be recognised that each individual member will also make its own assessment (whether explicitly or not), which will overlap with the above, but will also be distinct. This will include such considerations as alignment with an organisation’s own strategic goals, the perceived likelihood of success, and implications for profile, branding and legitimacy. Set against the anticipated benefits will be the investment in terms of money and, in particular, staff time, which can often be considerable.

Assessing the added value of collaboration is an inexact science, involving subjective opinions, making judgements and acknowledging assumptions. There will be some evidence, but concrete proof is less likely. However, making some systematic effort to answer the core question along these lines (however imperfectly) is preferable to avoiding it altogether – as is often the case. It is necessary to provide accountability for such joint working and make collaborations more effective by understanding in which sphere they are adding most value. 

It will also provide evidence on which to base decisions on whether to join yet another strategic alliance – or not.