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Different types of partnerships

A short introduction on the basic characteristics of partnerships.
Different types of partnerships
March 18, 2014 By: Evert-jan Quak Image: via Flickr (by: jankie)

The term ‘Partnership’ is used to describe a wide variety of relationships and collaboration contracts. As such, the term may be confusing. Therefore, more specific information on the type of partnership in question and the particular context is required.

The following basic characteristics help to classify a partnership:

  • Level of intervention: is it international, regional, national, or sub-national? (More information)
  • Type of stakeholders involved: public & non-profit, public-private, private & non-profit, tripartite, or multi-stakeholder. One may also use terms like ‘cross-sector’, and ‘intra-sector’ to refer to partnerships, though these may still need further clarification.
  • Level of engagement or level of strategic value for the stakeholders involved: an interesting way to describe the interaction between an NGO and a business from this perspective has been developed by James E. Austin, using the model of the ‘Collaboration Continuum’ (See Table 1). Austin’s research defines three stages, with progressively higher levels of engagement, resources, complexity, and strategic value. These stages are: philanthropic, transactional, and integrative.

In the philanthropic stage, the nature of the relationship is largely that of charitable donor and recipient. This characterizes most non-profit & business relationships today, but increasing numbers are migrating to the next level. In the transactional stage, there are explicit resource exchanges focused on specific activities. For example, cause-related marketing, event sponsorships, and contractual service arrangements would fall into this category. Some collaborations have moved to the integrative stage in which the partners’ missions, people, and activities begin to merge into more collective action and organizational integration. This alliance stage approximates a joint venture and represents the highest strategic level of collaboration. (See more information here)

Table 1. Collaboration Continuum

Nature of Relationship Stage I (Philanthropic) Stage II (Transactional) Stage III (Integrative)
Level of engagement  Low  ↔  High
Importance to mission  Peripheral  ↔  Central
Magnitude of resources  Small  ↔  Big
Scope of activities  Narrow  ↔  Broad
Interaction level  Infrequent  ↔  Intensive
Managerial complexity  Simple  ↔  Complex
Strategic value  Minor  ↔  Major

Source: James E. Austin. Strategic Collaboration Between Nonprofits and Business. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 2000; 29; 69.

The Dutch development NGOs have grosso modo adopted three types of inter-organizational partnering strategies, according to the Partnerships Resource Centre (See for more information here):

  • Donor-recipient partnerships. This is a traditional approach towards Southern actors, which has often been denominated as ‘partners’. It contains substantial dependencies in which the nature of the actual partnership is not always clear. This type of partnership comprises elements of both voluntary and involuntary partnering, but is intrinsically motivated by Northern NGOs. It primarily involves a (vertical) donor-recipient relationship.
  • Cross-sector partnerships. Since the start of the new millennium, an increasing number of NGOs have recognized they have reached the boundaries of their effectiveness. Alliances with firms in particular might help to improve their impact, and a growing number of NGOs have also started to search for market-based approaches towards development. The search for cross-sector partnerships with corporations has been voluntary, but also extrinsically motivated for two reasons. First, international organizations have started to embrace cross-sector partnerships as a principle. Second, in many countries government funding conditions has started to change in two profound ways. The total funds flowing to development organizations have decreased or stagnated, and governments have started funding more innovative cross-sector projects, especially projects including a business partner.
  • Intra-sector partnerships. NGOs are increasingly cooperating with each other horizontally. Development NGOs have always cooperated with other NGOs on a limited scale and, for instance, during sudden disasters. But this process has recently received a considerable boost by changed government funding strategies. For example, the Dutch government’s 2010 MFS II co-financing system requires Dutch NGOs to partner as a condition for further funding. This partnering can be considered ‘involuntary’ or defensive for two reasons. First, the NGOs are the recipient in a donor relationship with the government, and they are forced to strike – often incidental – partnerships in order to retain funding (which in many cases amounts to more than half of their budget).



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