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Chapter Six: Partnerships with Other NGOs and Government

26 October 2012
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Partnerships with Other NGOs and Government

This is part of The NGO Handbook, published by the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs.

An NGO cannot achieve its vision for a better society on its own. Community needs are too numerous and society’s problems are too complex. Your NGO needs to work with other NGOs and your government to accomplish your goals.

Through partnerships with other NGOs, and the public sector, you gain access to new resources, including funding and in-kind support as well as information, expertise and skills. When an NGO is just starting, it might find rent-free space for its activities through relationships with other NGOs, a local government office or a university. Partnerships with other NGOs might allow you to reach new target populations with your public education messages and broaden your base of popular support for your mobilization efforts. In short, partnerships can be an important vehicle for young NGOs to build visibility and capacity.

Partnerships take different forms, ranging from informal and casual to formal and structured. You can have relationships where you talk to each other regularly to share information, ideas and experiences. You can also have highly organized, collaborative relationships where you design projects, raise money and run the projects together.

When you are developing your near-term project plans and long-term strategic plans, think carefully about who you want to build partnerships with and what form the partnerships should take. In this chapter, we use a hypothetical NGO, Citizens Fighting Corruption, which focuses on rooting out local corruption, to explore how different partnerships are built, and the benefits and challenges they present.

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Create a Map of NGOs

As you become familiar with your environment, get to know the other NGOs that work in your community or on your issue. Draw a map of your community and mark the locations of other NGOs. Identify what they do and the type of relationships you would like to build with them. This exercise will highlight knowledge gaps that you need to fill.

Relationships with National and Local NGOs

Other NGOs can be sources of information and ideas, partners for projects, and allies for your cause. Get to know the ones working in your community — their issues, target populations and services. They can be especially helpful when you are just starting up and trying to define your mission and carve out your niche. Later, as you plan new projects and activities, you will want to know who is doing similar work so you can coordinate your efforts and avoid duplication. Make it a point to get to know other NGOs in your area, even if they are pursuing different missions. They probably care about your issue and may become strong allies.

You also need to know who is working on your issue in other cities and at the national and international levels. NGOs can learn from each other by sharing experiences and lessons learned. If Citizens Fighting Corruption wants to address corruption at the municipal procurement office, it could learn about strategies used by groups in other cities and how effective they were.

NGOs working on the same issues in different places can work together to address the root causes that cross geographic boundaries. When anti-corruption groups from various localities get their heads together, they might realize that what’s really needed is a national law. That would open the possibility for them to coordinate their efforts in a nationwide campaign to pressure legislators to pass such a law.

But make no mistake, effective partnerships take time to build. NGOs often see each other as rivals, competing for resources, support, visibility and even public praise. To begin to see each other as partners, you need to get to know each other and build trust. You can start by contacting another NGO for a meeting to get acquainted.

Once you know each other, you can share information about activities, conferences, training opportunities and funding opportunities. Telephone calls, meetings and email are good ways to keep in touch. Another way to build trust is to support one another’s work by publicizing and attending each other’s events, volunteering for each other’s activities, and providing letters of support for grant proposals.

Citizens Fighting Corruption has conducted a survey about perceptions of corruption. After compiling the results, it invites other NGOs to a briefing to share and discuss the results. That opens communication channels with other groups that have the same concern about corruption. Likewise, Citizens Fighting Corruption makes every effort to accept invitations from other NGOs to expand its network of allies.

Coordinating Efforts

As NGOs build trust with each other, they can coordinate their efforts more closely. Before you combine your efforts, however, make sure you agree on certain things:

• A shared vision. While each NGO should have its own distinct mission, a shared vision will help like-minded groups set common goals and deliver a common message for change. For example, if anti-corruption NGOs working in different parts of a country come together to develop a shared vision for what a corruption-free government looks like, they can establish a national platform that will provide a clear direction and sense of purpose for all.

• Common goals and a coordinated strategy for achieving them. Citizens Fighting Corruption and its related NGOs know all too well that they face potent opposition from the beneficiaries of corruption. By forming a united front with like-minded NGOs, Citizens Fighting Corruption reduces the opportunities for corrupt elements to play NGOs off each other and nullify their efforts.

• Coordinated outreach and education. Create a division of labor among cooperating NGOs as to who shares information or conducts trainings with different target audiences. This is needed to avoid duplication of effort. Citizens Fighting Corruption is working with another NGO that focuses on fair elections. Both want to educate voters to recognize election fraud and blow the whistle on it when they see it. The two NGOs realize that they can increase their effectiveness by pooling their knowledge and skills in joint education workshops and campaigns. Those steps enable them to expand their work into new neighborhoods.

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Allies

Your allies are the individuals, organizations and institutions whom you can call on to support your NGO, your community and your issues. If your NGO faces a funding cut that might force you to close your doors, your allies will speak up that your work is important and deserves to be supported. If you are an advocacy group, your allies will sign your petition, give testimony, or show up for your rally.

Coordination does not mean you do everything together. It does mean you talk and decide what you will do individually and what you will do jointly. Keep in mind that each NGO is autonomous and has its own internal priorities and decision-making processes.

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Informational Meeting

At an informational meeting, members from your NGO and another can share information about each other’s vision, mission and values. It’s an opportunity to identify shared goals and explore whether you might have opportunities to work together. Sometimes, an informational meeting results in concrete ideas about coordination or collaboration. Other times, you may simply agree to stay in communication.

Running Collaborative Projects

Sometimes NGOs develop close collaborative bonds by designing and carrying out projects together. Through collaborative projects your NGO can:

• Reach more people and broaden your constituency.

• Carry out new kinds of projects and expand your range of skills and expertise.

• Attract new resources. If you have limited management capacity or project experience, you may not qualify for grants from large foundations or the public sector. Partnering with an experienced organization could make your NGO eligible for such funding.

Let’s say Citizens Fighting Corruption sets up informational meetings with other NGOs working in the same neighborhood. It gets to know an arts and culture NGO, and the two start talking about how they can reach people with low literacy levels. They decide to work together to create street theater performances with anti-corruption messages. In working together, the anti-corruption NGO learns about staging theatrical performances and the arts and culture group learns about the corruption issue.

It’s good to start with something easy. For example, your NGO could partner with another to co-sponsor a one-time training event that benefits everyone. Afterward, the NGOs can assess what worked well, what did not, how each benefited, and whether you want to work together again.

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An Advocacy Coalition

An advocacy coalition is a group of NGOs, sometimes joined by other civil society groups, who come together to advocate for changes in laws, government policies or regulations. Coalitions can come together for a very specific objective — such as to pass a particular law — or to work together on a range of advocacy strategies.

Forming Advocacy Coalitions

NGOs that seek to change laws and government practices are more likely to be successful when they join forces. Effective advocacy requires large numbers. The more people you have on your side, the louder your voice is, and the stronger the pressure you are able to bring to bear. If a coalition already exists, join it. If none exists, think about starting one. That will make your NGO a leader among its peers. Such a step will take time and commitment. You may have to recruit staff and board members who can invest the time and energy to do it well.

REMEMBER...
Use Your Board Members to Build Relationships

Your board members are your NGO’s ambassadors. Use their networks of contacts to identify and build partnerships with other NGOs.

Let’s return to Citizens Fighting Corruption and its struggle to root out corruption in the local government procurement office. It is looking to form a coalition of diverse stakeholders, such as NGOs from the health care, education, and housing sectors. They all seek contracts from the city government and are concerned about corruption in the process of granting them. Citizens Fighting Corruption sees that by unifying these NGOs into a broad coalition, they can all speak with one voice and increase pressure to reform the government procurement office.

In order for the coalition to succeed, Citizens Fighting Corruption needs to make sure there is agreement on the following points:

• A shared commitment to the coalition based on shared values and vision.

• Clear roles and responsibilities for each partner.

• A defined decision-making structure.

• Open communication and transparency. Have clear understandings about what information you will share and will not share and how you will share it, such as through regular email, phone calls and meetings.

• An agreed-upon process for dealing with conflict or disagreements.

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Collaborate to Build Your Capacity

When you are starting up and have little experience and few resources, finding an established NGO to collaborate with is a good way to build your capacity to design and run projects. Your NGO has to have something of value to offer an established NGO in return for taking you on as a junior partner. For example, your NGO might have a very good relationship with a community that the established NGO wants to serve. The experience your NGO gains through collaboration improves your chances to win funding grants on your own in the future.

Relationships with International NGOs

Relationships with international NGOs offer your small NGO access to information about global standards and practices that affect your work. The international organizations are important members of your support network who will speak up and defend you when necessary. Through contacts with international NGOs, Citizens Fighting Corruption learns about international conventions, model laws from other countries and advocacy strategies that have been effective elsewhere. Taking on corrupt politicians, government workers and business owners can be a dangerous undertaking. The more relationships the NGO has with anti-corruption activists nationally and internationally, the more people there will be looking out and demanding protection should Citizens Fighting Corruption be threatened.

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Share Resources

When your and another NGO see that you are working toward the same vision and goals, it makes sense to pool your expertise and materials, such as training curriculum, tools, fact sheets, contact lists, etc. NGOs can also train each other’s staff in areas where they have knowledge, expertise and skills.

Building relationships with international NGOs can be challenging for local NGOs. The international NGOs, with their size, resources and visibility, often dictate agendas. But they also need small NGOs. International NGOs do not have your detailed knowledge of local issues and your relationships with local stakeholders. You have a lot to offer. Remember that.

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Establish Ground Rules

When NGOs begin to coordinate their work, it is important to establish ground rules for this. Even though you are not creating a formal structure, NGOs should agree on basic rules to conduct joint meetings, communication, and any projects you do together.

Relationships with Government

NGOs need to build relationships with the government — elected and appointed officials — to accomplish their mission. At times, the relationships may be confrontational; at other times they may be cooperative.

The role of NGOs is to hold governments accountable. Sometimes, an NGO may monitor a particular government agency or elected official to make sure they are doing their jobs and spending public resources appropriately. If they are not, that’s when NGOs need to speak up and demand changes.

Let’s say the advocacy coalition formed by Citizens Fighting Corruption was successful in getting the government procurement office to adopt an anti-corruption plan and appoint a commissioner to oversee it. The next goal for the NGO is to monitor implementation of the plan.

NGOs also need to cooperate with governments in providing outreach, education or services. NGOs and governments can work together to develop solutions to community needs, run joint projects, or carry out public awareness campaigns. For example, through meetings with the new anti-corruption commissioner at the government procurement office, Citizens Fighting Corruption saw a need to educate other NGOs about the government’s new contracting procedures, which were formulated to prevent corruption. As a gesture of goodwill, Citizens Fighting Corruption offered to do this with its own funding and not ask the government for funding.

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An NGO’s Monitoring Role

When an NGO monitors government, it watches and documents its practices to bring attention to problems and identify solutions. Sometimes, an NGO’s monitoring work focuses on a specific problem and leads to the recommendation of a new law or policy. Other times, an NGO monitors how well a law or policy is implemented. To be effective and credible, NGOs must ensure that the staff and volunteers who carry out the monitoring are knowledgeable, well trained and impartial.

Building a cooperative relationship with a government ministry takes time. You need to find allies — people in the ministry who have influence and share your values, vision and goals. Then you need to work to build trust with them.

NGOs must think carefully and strategically about their relationships with government ministries and elected officials. When you build strong relationships with people in government and make them your allies, you can accomplish a lot together. But you also need to maintain balance and perspective so you can speak up when the government does not do its job. And sometimes collaboration with government may not be in an NGO’s interest if the government does not have citizens’ trust or if the government is oppressive or corrupt.

WHAT’S THIS?
Governments Need NGOs

Governments need NGOs to accomplish their missions as well as vice versa. Because they often have very deep relationships in the communities they serve, NGOs can reach people governments can’t. With the ability to operate with high levels of flexibility and creativity, NGOs can fill gaps where governments have difficulty reaching.

Conclusion

Strong relationships are based on shared goals, trust or mutual benefit. Regardless of where your NGO is in its lifecycle — just starting up or well established — you need to invest time and energy in building relationships with other NGOs and your governments. Your relationships with them will certainly change over time, but they are always critical to your NGO’s sustainability.

People sitting in circle (AP Images)

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