27 October 2022

Tips of the Triangle: Exploring three-way partnerships for Organisational Development (OD)

Given that MAVA’S grantmaking will cease in 2022, over the past seven years the foundation has devoted significant resources to improving Organisational Development (OD) for many of its partners (total of CHF 19,1 million with 69 partners). Some of these became long-term, three-way partnerships between the partner, an external consultant, and MAVA as a donor. In March 2022 we published Tips of the Triangle, a 26-page booklet that highlights key insights and critical aspects of these partnerships, drawn directly from our experiences and those of four partners with expertise from Stone Soup consulting.

Three-way OD partnerships

MAVA wanted to proactively address challenges often encountered in traditional OD work, such as lack of funding, lack of continuity of support, and lack of flexibility in dealing with partner needs and priorities. Moreover, MAVA hoped this approach would temper the direct influence the foundation might have as a donor on a partner. By adding a consultant to the OD partnership, we sought to balance the power dynamic between all three parties and create a safe space where partners would feel more comfortable to share weaknesses and challenges with the consultant, and with MAVA only if needed.

Working together, MAVA, the consultant, and the partner engaged in the OD process with a holistic approach, addressing core functions like operations, governance, fundraising, and human resource management. This process, which we tried out with five MAVA partners, typically encompassed four distinct stages: 1) carrying out a baseline study (organisational “health-check”), 2) developing an OD action plan, 3) implementing and monitoring the OD action plan and 4) reporting on progress and results. Each three-way OD partnership involved a different consultant and was implemented over a period of roughly six years.

Main lessons learned from our experience

Based on discussions with four partner organisations and five consultants, we have pinpointed some learnings from our three-way OD partnerships, presented here through operational, ethical, and exit perspectives.

Operational perspective:

  • Communication is key to successful three-way OD partnerships, and not just among the group as a whole. It is also essential to strike a good balance with bilateral communication – i.e., between partner and consultant, or partner and MAVA, or MAVA and consultant. The organisational health check conducted in the field over several days with the partner’s entire team and the consultant provides an excellent opportunity to begin building the relationship between the two entities and sets the groundwork for a good communication process. Although most communication can be informal, some should be formal and in writing. The rules of communication (What to share? With whom? What format?) must be agreed from the beginning of the partnership. Over a long period, it is also important to be deliberate about keeping communication alive.
  • Time management is key to maintaining momentum in OD plan delivery, even when unexpected events put the plan at risk. Fostering an early commitment to any necessary changes and focusing on new priorities for partner support facilitates successful adaptation.
  • Clear roles and responsibilities, in theory and practice, allow for transparency. The fact that all partners had worked with MAVA before engaging in OD, and that they had chosen the consultant together with MAVA, helped relationships stay professional, while being friendly, dynamic, and inclusive.

Ethical perspective:

  • OD partnerships need well-established relationships between partners and collaboration with proven and experienced consultants. We found that once partners felt able to trust the consultant, they saw the consultant as an “independent facilitator” rather than a representative of MAVA.
  • Transparency is vital to successful partnerships. Access to information should always be formalised, and all parties should be comfortable sharing information. In our experience, it was crucial that a partner receiving OD support kept control of the flow of information concerning internal processes and challenges.
  • Balance of power is another important issue. A long-term OD partnership gives a donor access to privileged information about a partner, and the opportunity to influence their development. Additionally, some partners might seek OD support in hopes of securing or increasing project funding from the donor. A consultant’s independence is critical to mitig these potential risks. For each partner, from the beginning, it is important to clarify the relationship between OD support and project funding.

Exit perspective:

  • Consultant dependency can become an issue. A consultant may become over-involved – a “confidant” – or a partner may become too dependent on the consultant. Once OD is completed an organisation may feel an acute loss of support counterproductive to the progress that has been achieved.
  • By providing funding, especially for things for which funding is not usually easily secured (e.g., capacity building, office and IT equipment, salaries), OD support is a significant aid for partners. It can also, however, increase funding dependency. One of MAVA’s key priorities aimed to diversify partners’ funding base, rendering them less dependent on the foundation by the end of 2022. In our case, OD delivered good results, facilitating access to both international and local funding sources.
  • The impact of three-way OD partnerships benefits all three parties, resulting in clear, diverse, and tangible outcomes. For our partners, these impacts ranged from building a stable and capable team within the organisation, to acquiring an office, or developing fundraising and communication strategies. Additionally, partners supported by OD increased self-confidence, which encouraged them to seek new donors and consider taking more ambitious strategic action.

If you are interested in gaining more insights, including more detailed recommendations for successful three-way OD partnerships, we suggest you look at our Tips of the Triangle booklet. Happy reading!


Simon Mériaux
OD Manager and Head Of Learning, MAVA, Fondation pour la Nature
Liliana Dias
Consultant, Stone Soup Consulting