WARNING: Partnership vortex ahead!

During my level 1 partnership broker training (provided by the excellent Partnership Brokers Association) I coined the phrase the ‘partnership vortex’ as a way of describing the early stages of a ‘forced’ or ‘unequal’ partnership where the rhetoric of partnership (often used to mask what is essentially a contract or transaction), the urgency of delivery, peer pressure and the fear of missing out combine to create a dangerous whirlpool which can suck in ‘partners’… Those who have the misfortune to be sucked into a partnership vortex eventually emerge battered and bruised, and while the experience can be a profound learning opportunity, more often than not it results in a breakdown of trust between ‘partners’ and a deep cynicism with regard to future partnerships 

In the humanitarian sector, the vortex effect often arises in complex collaborations or consortia when a large injection of upfront capital (typically from an institutional donor or investor), is channelled through a reputable (often the biggest) organisation in response to a complex proposal and a commitment to deliver specific results or outcomes collaboratively. The danger of the vortex is particularly acute where ‘in principle’ (or binding) commitments have already been made by leadership, but the detailed processes and implementation, as well as the day to day management of the collaboration are delegated to management and more junior colleagues. 

Dressing up legitimate contracts or transactional relationships as partnerships does a huge disservice to those brokering and building ‘real’ partnerships. Mutually agreed contracts and transactions are essential and often sufficient; partnerships require the risks and benefits to be shared, and a degree of equity to the way in which power and voice is distributed among partners. Contracts or transactions masquerading as partnerships take on a life and momentum of their own, creating a dangerous vortex.

Avoiding the vortex takes skill and sound judgement. Extricating oneself (or one’s organisation) from it takes courage and determination. In my experience a number of agreements need to be in place to ensure there is equity in the partnership. For me, time invested in defining and agreeing under-pinning ‘operating principles’ is well worthwhile. From here, the necessary contracts, MoUs or specific agreements can be elaborated and managed appropriately. We would each do well to re-examine partnerships we are involved in brokering, building or managing to ensure we are not at risk of being sucked into the vortex ourselves.

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