Partnerships modalities between funding agencies and National NGOS, CSOs and CBOs have been deeply explored. The Resource Guide “Donors’ Civil Society Strategies and Partnership Modalities” developed by UNDP in 2012 offers a very clear and comprehensive overview of the various ways different donors approach partnerships.
The need of ensuring adequate transparency and accountability in most cases though drives the way the partnership is shaped, with a great emphasis usually put on the bilateral contractual relation and a strong attention to compliance to donors’ procedures. The complexity of the environments where those partnerships take place, pushes us to consider ways to think about partnerships not as a simple bilateral relation between the CSOs and the funding agencies, but as a dynamic relation that is influenced and influences the context they are in.
Taking inspiration from natural ecosystems, I would define this an ecological approach to partnerships. This can be defined as the approach used to understand the dynamic interrelations among the various organisms. An ecological approach is in particular looking at all the variety of relations (social, institutional, and cultural), the multiple dimensions and levels complexity of human relations.
We can define Systems as “regularly interacting or interdependent group(s) of items forming a unified whole”. In order moreover to understand how the systems dialogue with their parts and the environment they are in, we can borrow a definition that is coming from the natural science for which (eco)-systems are defined “by the network of interactions among organisms, and between organisms and their environment”.
If we keep using this metaphor, we could actually identify each development sector as the system where the development action takes place (Livelihood, Health, Educations, etc.).
Each system is inhabited by organisms that interact and dialogue among them and with the environment they are in. All those organisms (organizations, CSOs, CBOs, NGOs, media, academia and individuals) are potential partners to the action.
While all the organisms can be considered potential partners, the ones that are more interconnected with the others can be considered as knots of the network of interactions and interlinks which form the system. These represent therefore possible activators of even more frequent interactions and inter-connectivity, making the all system more stable and resilient. Those are the players that can moreover have a greater influence in making changes happen within the systems.
There is a great variety of possible partnerships and therefore a variety of relations that can be established between Organizations.
An ecological Approach to Partnerships
Ecological Approaches are already used in a variety of different sectors and disciplines such as Public Health, Learning or Social Work and in all those disciplines they aim at capturing the complexity of dynamic interrelations among the various parts of the systems and the environment they are in.
The use of an ecological approach is particularly relevant in the case of multilingual – multicultural contexts where the level of complexity is defined by the number of relations between the various cultures and languages spoken and used.
“The term ‘ecology’ is used to underscore the interconnections across the communication resources and needs of individuals and groups within a particular society. It is critical to address all aspects of communication (spoken and written) within a community, rather than to act on some in isolation and so attention is needed at the sub-national, national and extra-national levels”.
Applying an ecological approach to partnerships, allows for a better understanding of the roles different partners can play and how they can be effective actors of change. It allows moreover to engaging in a variety of partnership modalities with different partners according to the role they play and the position in the geography of relations they occupy.
Some partners may therefore engage in direct service delivery, while others may be involved on consultation and advocacy actions and others again may receive support in terms of Organization Development.
The important aspect of this approach is that a donor would act as an activator of interconnections and interactions among stakeholders. Partners are therefore to be selected on the basis of their potentiality of becoming knots within the system. This might happen because of their centrality in the relations they are already involved in or because of the potential they represent to boost dynamic interconnections within the system.
These partners are to be considered the Champions of change a donor aims at strengthening a relation with, as crucial stakeholders within a system for real and lasting change to happen.
Advantages of an ecological approach to partnerships
In very complex contexts that often are multi-layer, multi-level and multi-stakeholders, an ecological approach to partnerships have some advantages that can be critical to the success of the partnering process.
- An ecological approach, especially if combined to a Political-economic analysis on the main issues affecting a specific sector, allows for a better understanding of contexts that are strongly influenced by the high number of actors, because it does not only take into account the number of stakeholders and their capacities, but also their dynamic relations.
- The support provided to a variety of stakeholders will increase the overall stability of a particular system and its resilience to possible external shocks. It will strengthen the overall social textile within a specific sector, making the changes last longer and being more sustainable.
- An ecological approach is conflict sensitive and with proper analysis allows bringing no harm to the different stakeholders because it assesses and reassess the relations among the different players and takes into account the pressure and solicitation put on those relations by the action.
 UNDP, (2012), “Donors’ Civil Society Strategies and Partnership Modalities”, UNDP, New York
 Ernst-Detlef, S.; Beck, E.; Müller-Hohenstein,K.; 2005. Plant Ecology. Berlin: Springer
 Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
 McLaren, L.; Hawe P.; (2005). “Ecological Perspectives in Health Research”. J Epidemiol Community Health 59: 6–14
 Crosby, R.A, Salazar, L. F., and DiClemente, R. J., “Ecological Approaches in the New Public Health”, in DiClemente et al., (2013), “Health Behavior Theory for Public Health”, Jones & Bartlett Learning, pg. 231
 Normak, P., Pata, K., & Kaipainen, M. (2012). An Ecological Approach to Learning Dynamics. Educational Technology & Society, 15 (3), 262–274.
 Pardeck, J. T.; (2015), “An Ecological Approach for Social Work Practice”, The Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare: Vol. 15: Iss. 2, Article 11.
 Lo Bianco, J.; (2013); “Language and Social Cohesion”, pg. 9