Book Chapter - Routledge

Partnerships Under Pressure: Lessons on Adaptation and Overcoming Challenges

| May 31, 2022

The following is an excerpt from a chapter in Partnerships for Sustainability in Contemporary Global Governance: Pathways to Effectiveness (Routledge, May 2022), edited by Liliana B. Andonova, Moira V. Faul, and Dario Piselli. The full text of the chapter is available here via Routledge's open access policy.


Partnerships are inherently challenging. They require two or more partners to share common goals and to work together over the lifetime of a project. While each partner may bring different skills, experiences and resources to the partnership, each also has different cultures, priorities and needs. Allocating responsibilities between partners to maximize effectiveness is thus a complex endeavor – even when partners are in the same sector. Moreover, external factors such as government changes or fluctuations in business cycles may place partnerships under pressure. In some instances, partnerships may be unable to gain needed political support or obtain financing. In other cases, catalytic events or trends that partners anticipate may not occur; or partnership arrangements become plagued by governance problems in the operation and management of the project.

In sum, realizing and sustaining the benefits of the partnership while minimizing financial and political costs can be daunting, requiring a high level of flexibility, creativity and commitment among the partners. This is why the capacity of a partnership to adapt and learn as conditions change is increasingly discussed as an important indicator of its ability to overcome challenges and achieve its overarching objectives (Andonova 2017; Cheng et al. 2015; De Burca et al. 2014; Hoffmann 2011; Pattberg and Widerberg 2016). In this volume, the presence of processes that facilitate the adaptability of partnerships is hypothesized to be a condition leading to greater partnership effectiveness (see Chapter 1).

This chapter investigates the durability of partnership arrangements and their adaptability as a key condition for partnership effectiveness and long-term sustainability, consistent with Proposition 3 of the volume’s analytical framework. We study a set of partnership initiatives selected as finalists for the Roy Family Award for Environmental Partnership, a biennial award established in 2003 by the Harvard Kennedy School to recognize effective, high-potential and innovative cross-sector partnerships that create significant benefits for the partners, their stakeholders and the environment. Since its inception through the end of 2018, 43 separate partnerships were selected as finalists and eight were chosen for the Award, with a significant variation in geographic scope, the range of topics addressed and sustainability impacts. To assess if and how these partnerships lived up to their initial potential, we sent a survey to 37 of these partnerships. Our goal was to understand whether and how they adapted to overcome the challenges that they encountered. In this chapter we summarize the responses to this survey and present three case studies examining in greater detail the varying level of adaptability of the three partnerships, the different dynamics of such adaptability and how the partnerships’ ability to adapt impacted their effectiveness.

The remainder of the chapter is organized as follows. First, we present a brief history of the Roy Award program and discuss our methodology. Next, we briefly discuss the results of the survey of the 37 partnerships before introducing the three case studies – the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project, Mexico City Metrobús, and Alianza Shire. Finally, we provide a comparative discussion of how adaptability influences pathways to effectiveness across the three cases and present our conclusions.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Sardonis, Amanda and Henry Lee. “Partnerships Under Pressure: Lessons on Adaptation and Overcoming Challenges.” Oxon, England: Routledge, 2022.

The Authors

Henry Lee