The Missing Ingredient for Successful Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships: Cooperative Capacity


(See attached for full references)

Multi-stakeholder partnerships are an essential vehicle for solving complex societal problems.

Agreements governing these partnerships often lack equitable partner agency in framing and enforcing multi-stakeholder agreements. This challenges the partner cooperation needed of partnerships to be effective. This theoretical paper introduces a new original model to measure and develop the cooperative capacity of multi-stakeholder partnerships so that future agreements involving the partnership are framed to share governance equitably among all partners and hence, increase partnership performance and effectiveness. The model provides a methodology to measure and develop the cooperative capacity of multi-stakeholder partnerships through key performance indicators that identify the cooperative state of partners and predicts partnership effectiveness in achieving common goals. The paper traces the theoretical genesis of the model, presents a comprehensive explanation of the model, and provides cases of the model’s application.

1. Introduction

The human species today faces existential threats from both people and the environment. The world is currently plagued by a multitude of complex problems across different development sectors. Complex problems are societal problems that cannot be easily solved without cooperation between multiple people, institutions, or stakeholders. They are often referred to as wicked problems in the literature. According to Rittel and Webber (1973), wicked problems are societal problems that are characterized by:

  1. the lack of a definitive way to formulate the problem,
  2. the lack of finality in a potential solution,
  3. the lack of a correct solution,
  4. the lack of ways to test solutions,
  5. the lack of room for error,
  6. the lack of a finite number of solutions that follow a well-described set of operations,
  7. the lack of transferability of a solution to other similar problems,
  8. every problem being symptomatic of another problem, ¨
  9. the multiplicity of causes for the problem, and
  10. the liability of solutions for unintended negative consequences.

Problems in international development such as refugee challenges, mass unemployment, weak infrastructure, food shortages, and COVID-19 are all examples of complex problems. These and other complex problems in international development are characterized by the dynamics between multiple factors causing the problem and the involvement of multiple stakeholders. Solving complex problems, therefore, necessitates partnerships between stakeholders of the specific context across development sectors, geographical boundaries, and function in society.

“Partnerships and cooperation are intrinsic to international development. The development community recognizes that strong partnerships and cooperation are necessary for solving wicked problems and achieving development goals.”

Almost every effort by the international development community involves, whether recognized or not, a web of internal and external relationships between internal teams, outside agents, and national actors. The quality of these relationships affects every aspect of a development project, including risk, performance, sustainability, scalability, and impact.

Developing high performing partnerships is integral to the success of development projects. Partnerships may be formed between any combination of local government, private sector businesses, international NGOs, foreign government agencies, leaders of violent groups, and other key stakeholders. Traditionally, the agreements framed by multi-stakeholder partnerships to carry out development projects are governed by a dominant partner that provides the largest share of funding. The dominant partner controls decision making in addition to establishing and enforcing sanctions to ensure compliance to the agreement. Most often, a “very important” enforcement tool is the threat of withdrawal of funding. The subordinate partners are involved in the implementation of projects but lack significant “voice” and agency and have little if any influence on decision-making. This lack of “voice” and agency in the governance of partnerships is a common cause of partnership failure to achieve common goals (Franke et al., 2021). The solution of complex societal problems demands the utilization of multi-stakeholder partnerships characterized by high levels of cooperation. However, the field of international development lacks tools to measure the capacity of multi-stakeholder partnerships to cooperate and predict partnership performance.

Cooperative capacity is defined as the ability of partners in a partnership to work collaboratively to achieve partnership goals. The description of cooperative capacity of partnerships is organized by nine elements: group identity and understanding of purpose, minimal recognition by stakeholders, self-management, proportional equivalence between costs and benefits, fair and inclusive decision-making, monitoring behaviors and performance, graduated sanctions, fast and fair conflict resolution, and the ability to adapt. These nine elements reflect three precursor conditions: inclusion, common understanding, and trust for effective partnerships that are advanced by Franke et al. (2021). Inclusion refers to equitably shared governance roles and agency in decision-making for all partners within the partnership. Common understanding refers to a universally shared interpretation among all the partners of the roles, practices, and processes in the governance of the partnership. Trust refers to partners’ belief in each other’s words, actions, and decisions regarding the partnership.

This paper presents a new model for measuring the cooperative capacity of partnerships—the Cooperative Capacity Framework (CCF). More comprehensively, the paper describes the fundamental components of the model, the Cooperative Capacity Ladder, the Partnership Maturity Matrix, and the Partnership Network Map. This original model is derived out of the dissertation work of E. Wolterstorff several subsequent years of developing the model with M. Chapman and F. Page, and the application of the framework to two international partnerships. The paper concludes with applications of the Cooperative Capacity Framework, implications of the new model and suggestions for future research. The model provides a tool for measuring and developing the cooperative capacity of multi-stakeholder partnerships. It informs partnerships about institutional weaknesses impeding the development of shared governance and shared agency in multi-stakeholder agreements. It also provides guidance for developing the practices and processes needed to build truly collaborative, adaptable, learning partnerships that perform at levels higher than the norm.

The following section highlights the need for the model by identifying gaps in the literature on the practice of using partnerships and their evaluation in international development and business.

© 2021 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (

First published Societies, MDPI, vol. 11(2), pages 1-30, April 2021

Frank Page
Frank Page
Partner at Cooperative Capacity

Frank Page has over 25 years of international development experience in Africa and Asia.

For almost 20 years in Southeast Asia, as an independent consultant, he has worked with donor projects and NGOs conducting organizational assessments, project evaluations, strategic planning, and staff training in community engagement and organization capacity building.

Frank has Master Degrees in International Agricultural Development and Organization Development.

Eric Wolterstorff
Eric Wolterstorff
Partner at Cooperative Capacity

Dr Eric Wolterstorff is an expert in collective trauma, and helping leaders to manage complex, stressful, environments.

He has spent over 25 years helping individuals, teams, and businesses manage crises and achieve results. CCP’s metrics and analysis are based on Dr. Wolterstorff’s academic and practical work.

He has worked in Indonesia, post-Katrina New Orleans, Germany, and North Africa, and is the founder and CEO of Sovereignty First.

Dr. Mary Vayaliparampil
Director, Summer School at Asian University for Women | Website

Dr Vayaliparampil is a results-oriented education management professional skilled in Higher Education Administration, International Education Policy, Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding, Participatory Action Research, Training Development, and Nonprofit Management with a PhD in International Education Policy from Pennsylvania State University.

Dr Vayaliparampil's specialties include program development, education and peacebuilding research, program evaluation, and curriculum design. She is most concerned with issues of equity, quality of education, and educational outcomes (both academic and non-academic), and is passionate about using data to support policy decisions.

Share With Your Network

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Take our mini partnership evaluation quiz

Every partnership has a personality. Impact17 can help you build the strengths and fill in the gaps where you need to deliver the best success.