Five key lessons on effective partnerships for systems and social change

lakshmi sundaram

Lakshmi Sundaram is the Interim Executive Director at openDemocracy and Consultant at Lucent Consultancy. She was previously the first Executive Director of Girls Not Brides, The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.


Follow on Twitter @LakSundaram

Follow on LinkedIn

Five key lessons on effective partnerships for systems and social change

Last year, I got to meet some of the brilliant students at the Skoll Centre and shared some of what I have learned over the past two decades about partnerships for systems and social change.

What connects ending child marriage with new ways to detect multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and technology innovations in HIV management? They all represent breakthroughs in systems and social change that would have never been possible without robust partnerships. They also represent quite different approaches – from a loosely knit civil society partnership bringing together 1,000+ organisations globally to much more structured entities with commercial, public and non-profit partners. Yet, there are some common overarching lessons that have continued to emerge and crystalise for me over the years from these diverse experiences. Here are some of them.

Lesson 1: the ‘how’ of partnerships is as important as the ‘what’

Changing systems or social norms is complex: it can’t be done by a single activist or organisation, no matter how passionate and knowledgeable. Catalysing and sustaining this type of change is always going to require individuals and groups with different competencies to work together. There is a humility implicit in the decision to work in partnership – by coming together, groups acknowledge that they need one another to achieve their goals.

However, this humility is often forgotten once people get lost in the weeds of the partnership’s work. That’s one reason why it is so important to invest the time and energy to set up structures that are fit-for-purpose, build trust between partners and co-define the values and goals of a partnership. And, given the complexity of systems and social change, it is also critical to routinely revisit these as the partnership matures.

Lesson 2: define the full problem...and the breadth of the solution

This sounds so obvious: you need to fully understand the problem you are trying to tackle and identify the different elements that are needed to solve it. But I have been in too many situations where well-meaning people look at problems from the outside and make snap judgments about what needs to change. We all love silver bullets, but these are rarely applicable when we are talking about social change and where whole systems need to shift and evolve. This is one reason why the people most affected by the problem have to be at the centre of the partnership: they are the ones with the deepest understanding of what is wrong with the status quo and what transformation is needed.

Effective partnerships also require a clear, common understanding of the change they want to see in the world, and a sense of what it will take to get there. At Girls Not Brides, this meant developing a joint theory of change for the field, where activists tackling a range of different issues – from working with religious leaders to challenging legal frameworks – could see how their work was contributing to changing the whole system.

Lesson 3: identify tactics, rallying points and symbolic wins

When you are trying to change a complex system or are pushing back against centuries of traditions, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and demotivated. In such a context, celebrating progress and periodically rallying together across all parts of a partnership can be incredibly energising. Symbolic wins can provide these moments – whether it is a change in a law or the approval of a new diagnostic tool. They remind us all that change is indeed possible and help us face setbacks with greater resilience.

Lesson 4: recognise the power of simple, practical tools

Sometimes, the most powerful role you can play in catalysing systems change is to help others around you to take on your cause. When you are working in a partnership on a multi-faceted issue, it can be difficult to bring new people along without them feeling totally overwhelmed. As someone who thrives in complexity, I have been surprised by how much impact we can have if we distil the collective wisdom of a complex partnership into simple tools – like checklists, infographics and ‘how to’ guides – and then encourage new actors to use them. I have seen incredible progress when, for example, a harried government official has been able to cut-and-paste from a reliable factsheet to convince their minister to take action.

Lesson 5: be mindful of who gets credit and whose voice is heard

We live in a world with gross power imbalances, and it is easy for trans-national partnerships to reinforce these. Since systems change can seem abstract, there’s a real need for human stories to bring such change to life, and often a thirst for symbolic figureheads. However, one manifestation of power imbalances is around whose stories get told and celebrated, and who gets ‘credit’ for the success of the partnership. This is unfair, harmful and, ultimately, counterproductive. You cannot sustain a global partnership aiming to change the world if people don’t feel that they are valued and that their contributions are recognised. For a diverse partnership to continue to grow and thrive, especially over the long term, it is therefore particularly important to proactively lift up and celebrate the partners whose work is essential, but whose voices and stories may not normally make the headlines.