Building Partnerships and CSO Networks: Care, Trust and Respect
Building and sustaining networks of civil society organizations (CSOs) is really about building partnerships. Much like the relationship between business partners and life partners, the relationship among CSOs in a network is founded on mutual support and equality. Partners are equals who help each other. We can learn how to build and strengthen CSO networks by reflecting on our partnerships. We can readily see three key elements of strong partnerships.
The CODE-NGO Member Networks and Secretariat during the Strategic Planning for 2018-2022
First, strong partnerships are permeated by care; and not just any caring. In a true partnership, you care for your partner as much as, if not more than, yourself. You are ready to sacrifice yourself for the good of your partner. Such caring is easily understood and seen in the context of partnerships among individuals, for example, boyfriend and girlfriend, wife and husband, and parents and children.
While we readily say that CSO networks are partnerships of organizations meant to help one another, such selfless caring is harder to practice in these networks. It is often challenging for member organizations to put the welfare of other members and the good of the network as a whole above their own organizational interest. The representatives of organizations who sit in the network’s leadership bodies are often expected, and pressured, by their own organization to protect and advance their own interests. While this is only natural, and caring for one’s self is not by itself bad, self-centeredness that is not balanced by caring for the other damages and eventually destroys partnerships and networks. Organizations and their representatives need to have the maturity and courage to care more for others in the network and for the network as a whole.
CSO networks rise and fall based on their governance and leadership, as exercised by the board/council of the network and its staff, especially the executive director. The relationship between them also needs to be marked by care for each other. They need to be supportive of each other while performing their various roles in the network. This does not mean always patting each other’s backs, though back pats are also important. It does mean that the board, while setting directions and effectively performing its oversight functions, also provides the executive director and the staff with guidance and supports them in raising the needed resources for the network. It also means that the executive director and the staff ensures complete staff work to support the board in its governance work.
The second important element in strong partnerships is trust. Trust is earned. This means that member organizations, board members and staff members need to fulfill their duties and keep their promises. They also need to be transparent with one another and to provide needed information in a timely and effective manner. Trust is also kept. All of these, fulfilling duties, delivering on commitments and being open, need to be sustained and done continuously in a better way.
Trust needs to be earned and kept among partners, but trust also needs to be given. When there are seemingly questionable actions, partners need to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and the chance to explain. Assuming the worst and jumping to conclusions quickly destroy relationships. Also, even when there are actual missteps or misdeeds, for as long as these are not major and/or repeated, partners need to be understanding of one another’s weaknesses. While not condoning lapses, they have to give each other the chance to recover and to do better in the future.
Finally, partners need to respect each other. They need to know and respect each other’s strengths and limitations. At the same time, they need to challenge each other to develop and grow. Respect is also important during disagreements and conflicts – which can only be expected in any relationship among individuals and organizations. Organizations and leaders in any vibrant CSO network will disagree and debate with each other, but this has to be done without losing their respect for one another. Leaders, staff and members in any healthy network will also criticize one another. Criticism, after all, shows that they care enough for the network and for one another to be mindful of each other’s actions. However, criticism has to be done in a constructive and respectful way.
Care, trust and respect – ensure these, and we will build and sustain partnerships and CSO networks.
-S.C. Macasaet, 12 September 2017
*based on the author’s opening remarks at the General Assembly (GA) of Cordillera Network of Development NGOs and POs (CORDNET) last May 2017; the theme of their GA was “Sustaining Partnerships, Building Resilience, Growing Amid Change”
Sixto Donato C. Macasaet is the former Executive Director of the Caucus of Development NGO Networks (CODE-NGO). He served the network from May 2005 to July 2017. He is currently a Guest Lecturer at the Ateneo School of Government teaching Applied Economics for the Public Sector.