Do partnerships and alliances make a difference in conservation?

MAVA’s work throughout the years has covered a variety of geographies, species and ecosystems, using different approaches and involving a number of stakeholders from a diversity of sectors and backgrounds. This pool of data provides a rare and valuable opportunity to extract evidence-based lessons on conservation. Which strategies have produced results, and which have not worked as well? Does research improve conservation practice? Do people who have participated in trainings implement better strategies and practices? Does working in partnership lead to better impact? Does flexible funding allow organizations to be more strategic and resilient?

Questions such as these are part of the challenges in conservation projects and programmes, and MAVA aims to contribute to finding answers that could be shared with the conservation community. To achieve that, the foundation commissioned Foundations of Success and Conservation Evidence to investigate, and the result of this collective effort is now available on the Conservation Learning Initiative website.

The Initiative presents the findings of the analytical work carried out on the themes of capacity building, partnerships and alliances, research and monitoring, and flexible funding. MAVA is publishing blogs to highlight the findings on these topics as part of the learning outcomes from this important piece of work. This one follows the blogs on Research and monitoring and Capacity Building; another on Flexible funding will appear soon. Our hope is that these learnings will nourish the work of our fellow practitioners in philanthropy and conservation.

By: Salla Ba, Luis Costa, Paule Gros and Charlotte Karibuhoye Said

If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together”. This famous African proverb captures the essence of partnerships and collaborations. Intuitively, we want to believe in the power brought by numbers and the broadening of scope conferred by the complementarity of knowledge and capacities. 

This is precisely one of the questions that the Conservation Learning Initiative (CLI) sets out to test in the context of conservation. Is there evidence in philanthropy practice and in the conservation literature supporting that developing partnerships and alliances is an impactful strategy? And, if it is proven, what is the recipe to develop a good partnership, and what benefits can its members expect from it? 

These questions are highly relevant to the conservation community. Conservation issues are complex, the challenges to meet colossal, and the sector itself comparatively small and underfunded, and sometimes the same actions are carried out separately, which disperses our efforts. Uniting for greater impact seems an obvious way to tackle these challenges.

Indeed, developing partnerships and fostering collaborations is a popular approach amongst conservation practitioners and foundations to broaden the scope and magnify the intensity of the work supported, also to scale it up geographically and thematically. This is illustrated by the prevalence of networks of conservation practitioners, for example networks of managers of Marine protected areas in MAVA focus regions: the RAMPAO in West Africa and the MedPAN in the Mediterranean.

We bet on partnerships and alliances: can such an approach pay off?

At MAVA, we are strong believers in the partnership approach, having heavily relied on it during our last strategic exercise through the development of thematic Outcome Action Plans (OAP) delivered by coalitions of partners. We chose to rally our long-term trusted partners around a strategic framework that they jointly designed, and under which they implemented and monitored projects throughout the last seven years. Our rationale was that this approach would combine complementary capacities, involve most critical stakeholders on a given issue, and encourage strategic alignment for stronger impact. Our hope was that strengthened by seven years of joint practice, the partnerships will create a conservation community that would perpetuate MAVA’s legacy after our foundation has closed. 

What does the concrete evidence accumulated over our last 28 years of grantmaking backed up by evidence from the conservation literature tell us about partnerships and collaborations as a conservation strategy? Was it judicious for MAVA to move from individual projects to a strategic partnership approach in the framework of its last strategy? 

The CLI sets out to test the basic assumption that: ‘A set of partners with complementary skills, backgrounds, and experience jointly have a higher likelihood of achieving outcomes than individual organisations on their own’. To address this general assumption, more specific hypotheses were tested. Here is an overview of the findings with annotations drawn from MAVA’s experience.

  • ‘Partnerships frequently achieve more than individual partners could by acting alone’.

 CLI analysis based on MAVA grantee’s views and published literature found some evidence that supports this hypothesis with positive outcomes in various areas. A word of caution is made on the significant additional investments needed and the fact that partnerships are a means to an end. 

In our experience, we observed that working as an international coalition brought more leverage than working nationally, particularly when it comes to policy e.g., when denouncing environmental crimes, for the management of transboundary river basins, or to accelerate the declaration of protected areas.

The fact that only some support was found particularly regarding the political influence of partnerships may suggest that not all attempts at developing and running partnerships are successful and that sometimes the costs outweigh the benefits. 

  • Being in a partnership has added value for the partners.

Overall the evidence provides some support to this hypothesis, with stronger support from MAVA projects portfolio. Evidence from the wider literature was more mixed, which suggests contrasting occurrences of beneficial and more detrimental or neutral effects of engaging in partnerships. As a result, CLI highlights the need for managing expectations about what a partnership can achieve and how, with a warning that partners should expect to invest significant time and resources into developing and maintaining successful relationships. 

The joint implementation of outcome action plans provided our partners with an opportunity to collaborate closely and in a transparent manner for seven years. Partners learnt to trust each other and recognize their respective strengths. Joint implementation of outcome action plans also enabled exchanges of experience and capacity building between partners, some even choosing to collaborate beyond outcome action plans. In the end, most of them valued the benefits of collaboration over the fear of competition.

  • There is no standard recipe for the perfect combination of partners.

CLI analysis found evidence that strongly supports that effective partnerships differ in their set-up, both from MAVA’s partner’s views and from the literature. The conclusion being that the effectiveness of a partnership may depend on several factors including its scope and mission, community maturity, and leadership roles.

In alignment with this conclusion, we observed that the same recipe applied to different outcome action plans led to very different results in terms of partners’ engagement and willingness and capacity to outlive MAVA. This could be traced to previous history and trust amongst partners, the degree of overlap in partner’s strategies and the capacity of individual organisations to adapt their own strategic goals, and willingness to and capacity of different individuals to step in as natural leaders. 

We also noticed that sometimes the recipe can work for a limited time before additional ingredients are needed, for example through reorganizing roles or opening the door to newcomers.

  • The investment of setting up a partnership pays off through the additional funding acquired by the partnership over time

While MAVA´s experience with partnerships brings some support to this hypothesis, CLI´s analysis provides a more mixed view with some partnerships being able to acquire significant additional funds, while others found it challenging. This led to a suggestion well worth debating: Should partnerships set the conservation agenda and funders co-design or rally about it? A positive answer to this would be very much in line with MAVA’s approach to strategic partnerships!

With MAVA’s closing in sight, the partnerships we fostered are in full fundraising mode, and we are acutely aware of the disparity of fundraising success amongst them. In this very case, factors of success include ‘popularity’ of the topic (for example it is currently easier to fund marine issues in the Mediterranean), capacity to address regional issues versus local ones in the submissions, and fundraising savviness partially linked to size and experience of organisations in the partnership. 

As a follow-up and thinking beyond financial sustainability, it would be interesting to test what characteristics are predictive of partnership overall sustainability. 

Our Take away message 

The example of MAVA’s last strategic exercise corroborates that partnerships often bring added value to the partners and achieve more than individual partners could. However, it also confirms that it takes steady funding, time, and guidance to develop a successful partnership. Building trust amongst partners and establishing functional governance in the partnership constitute two of the main ingredients of success. This illustrates CLI’s conclusion that the return one gets from partnerships depends on the effort put into building them.

For more detail on MAVA’s experience on the issue of partnership and more, please see our learning product on this approach in a publication collectively written by MAVA and FOS Europe: here for the summary and here for the full article.

The Conservation Learning Initiative proposes a powerful approach to investigate the effectiveness of conservation strategies. Eventually, findings could serve as a reference to practice and fund evidence-based conservation.

If you are a donor, we strongly encourage you to contact the Conservation Learning Initiative at info@conservation-learning.org! The larger the grant database, the more pertinent questions can be asked and the more robust the answers will be!

Here is the link to contact CLI coordination team so you will be informed about future events around the initiative.

Stay tuned to the 4th blog of the series on Conservation Learning Initiative: Flexible funding

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