Simon Brossard

Five lessons on multi-stakeholder partnerships for development

Written by Simon Brossard, Consultant, Hystra and Bernard Garrette, Professor of Strategy and Business Policy, HEC Paris

The number of multi-stakeholder partnerships for development has boomed in the past decades, with leading coalitions emerging such as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, the Global Fund for the fight against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, or the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. The United Nations have even set a Sustainable Development Goal specifically for multi-stakeholder partnerships. Indeed, the idea of bringing together large corporations, governments, non-profits, and academia towards a social cause is attractive: it can create synergies, costs sharing, mutual learning, lobbying power, and innovation.

However, development coalitions are also complex and costly. And many of them fail. Hystra analyzed the shortcomings of leading partnerships documented in a 2012 paper by Bezanson and Isenman[2]: 64% of them lacked a clear strategy, 55% lacked transparency, 45% had poor governance mechanism, and 36% were not financially sustainable in the long term. In fact, development coalitions compound the traditional challenges of partnership management[3] by associating heterogeneous stakeholders with different, and sometimes antagonistic, agendas[4].

Therefore the sector would strongly benefit from better understanding what works and which mistakes should be avoided. Hystra had the opportunity to participate in a two-year long experience at the birth of a global partnership for sanitation called the Toilet Board Coalition (TBC). We documented the lessons from this experience in a report for the French Development Agency[5] and are sharing some key insights here.


The lack of a clear strategy is a common mistake for many multi-stakeholder partnerships, who realize that bringing together complementary players is not enough. As the different players come from various backgrounds with different philosophies, hence potentially divergent agendas, the coalition’s strategy will not emerge spontaneously. Therefore, strategy formulation cannot be left implicit. Otherwise, misunderstandings and tacit inconsistencies will accumulate over time and re-appear to create gridlocks when decisions and action are called for. The time that is spent to formulate, share and re-iterate a clear strategy, especially at the early stages, when the coalition is launched and new partners are co-opted, is time well spent.

When Unilever initiated the TBC in 2012, their intuitions were that (i) they had a role to play in providing clean toilets to the 2.4 million people who lacked one, (ii) this would create significant market opportunities for the company, but (iii) they were not equipped to solve this problem on their own. Indeed, offering sanitation solutions requires a particularly wide range of skills and resources – from design and manufacturing of toilets, to behavior change and marketing strategies (Unilever sweet spot), toilet maintenance, waste collection and treatment, etc. So Unilever started to look for partners who could join forces on their journey. Yet, they later realized that a strong rationale for collaboration was not enough. Between 2012 and 2013, the TBC had focused on gathering leading sanitation and corporate experts and getting them to think through major sanitation issues – demand creation for toilets, future waste technologies, evaluation of sanitation projects, etc. While this had produced useful knowledge, the way the TBC would create real impact on the ground was still unclear.

Hence the coalition needed a clear and explicit strategy, and it took about one year between 2014 and 2015 to craft one. It now consists in accelerating promising field initiatives, making the case that it is possible to build profitable and scalable sanitation businesses, and attracting investment. By the end of 2015, four initiatives were being supported in Ghana, the Philippines, India, and Bangladesh. In addition, this theory of change became the basis for the TBC to design its governance and assign responsibilities to its members.


Which partners should be invited around the table? Intuitively, organizations that are sector leaders will bring the necessary level of credibility, resources, and ambitions. However, the selection of members is not limited to organizations and should encompass the individuals who will actually represent them, make the important decisions, and create momentum. In fact, our experience shows that multi-stakeholder development coalitions are too often plagued with cumbersome and sporadic decision-making processes even though the financial commitment of the partner-organizations is actually limited.

So, firstly, it is key to recruit members with a sufficient level of seniority, who can make decisions on the spot and create traction within their organization. In particular, members must have a clear mandate to engage their parent organization in spending decisions without getting trapped in lengthy validation processes. In addition, the term of each representative must be long enough so that inter-personal relations are created and trust develops.

Secondly, the TBC illustrates that partnerships need members with an appetite for innovation and readiness to stretch over time. For instance, senior executives of large corporations were challenged within their own organizations on the rationale for investing their time and the company’s money in a development partnership. At the same time, representatives of non-profits had to advocate for collaborating with business. As Bernard Giraud, President of Livelihoods Ventures (a multi-stakeholder fund) puts it: “coalitions need people with a touch of madness who would dare what others wouldn’t”.


The required seniority of members has one consequence: they will likely have little time for the partnership on a daily basis. The number and variety of partners around the table tends to further dilute the sense of responsibility. Hence any successful multi-partner coalition needs a strong and well-resourced secretariat, which should be responsible for its progress.

Hystra played this role in the TBC for about one and a half years. One of most critical challenge for us has been to find the right balance between members’ engagement and actual project delivery. The lesson we have drawn is that the secretariat needs operational leeway to deliver on the partnership strategy and not be stuck in alignment issues. We have focused most of our efforts on the field initiatives, working with entrepreneurs and local organizations in India or Bangladesh. This decision might sometimes have come at the expense of spending more time with members in the short-term, but we also found out that delivering tangible results out of actual projects was the only way to drive commitment in the long-term.


Early-stage coalitions tend to allocate a significant share of their budget into communications. Internally, some publicity is key to attract top-level attention within member organizations and boost employees’ motivation. Externally, communication is also needed to attract new members or raise funds.

However early-stage communication is a double-edged sword. First, it might backfire if actual results don’t meet the communicated targets. Second, our experience with the TBC tells us that getting journalists’ attention is much harder when coalitions don’t have tangible results to show. Third, the lack of common substance at early stages tends to induce each partner into self-serving communication, which leads to inconsistency and confusion. The risk actually is to spend a lot of resources out of a constrained budget to get only little visibility. So it’s better to keep it low profile at first, and start communicating after the coalition has made some progress!


Multi-stakeholder partnerships are expensive to kick-off. The order of magnitude for any top-tier coalition would be a few years and a few million US dollars, and will certainly rely on members’ donations or grants from external parties.

However, donations and grants (i) always come with strings attached, which may add another layer of complexity in building the partnership strategy, and (ii) might disappear brutally as soon as donors start questioning the rationale for additional funding. So, how to build a partnership’s financial sustainability for the longer term, while keeping members aligned with its strategy? Our experience has taught us that considering donors as clients, rather than mere sponsors, can be very helpful, provided the services they are offered remain consistent with the partnership’s overall strategy and philosophy.

For instance, the TBC is providing technical assistance, strategic advisory, and matchmaking services to sanitation initiatives and investors. If these services were paid for by each “client” organization, rather than sponsored by the coalition as a whole, this would further create positive momentum by keeping the coalition focused on delivering distinctive, high value added services to the initiatives. However, a potential pitfall is that “client” donors might request services which could be misaligned with the TBC’s theory of change or inconsistent with its strategy, e.g. heavy reporting processes imposed to sanitation initiatives which would be a burden for their businesses, or large communication campaigns that would divert the coalition from its initiative-based focus. One key challenge is then to find the right balance between ensuring value for donors while maintaining strategic course.


[1] Hystra is a global consulting firm that works with corporations and social sector pioneers to design scalable and profitable solutions for the Base of the Pyramid

[2] Bezanson, K. and Isenman, P. (2012) Governance of New Global Partnerships: Challenges, Weaknesses, and Lessons. CGD Policy Paper 014. Washington DC: Center for Global Development.

[3] Dussauge, P., Garrette, B. (1999), Cooperative Strategy, Wiley.

[4] Karnani, A. (2011), c, Palgrave Macmillan.

[5] Brossard, S., Graf, J., Kayser, O., Garrette, B., (2015), How to Catalyze Public-Private Alliances and Market-based Solutions to the Sanitation Crisis?, Agence Française de Développement, Note technique.


Read our online magazine on the value of platforms and new coalitions!