What Do Successful Partnerships in Family Planning Look Like?

Q&A with Knowledge SUCCESS Partnerships Team Lead

By Sophie Weiner

How can your organization build successful partnerships to benefit the broader family planning and reproductive health community? Knowledge SUCCESS Partnerships Team Lead Sarah Harlan talks about challenges and lessons learned, including how simple video chats can go a long way when cultivating family planning coalitions.

Can you briefly describe your role as Partnerships Team Lead? 

Sarah: I oversee collaboration and engagement with partners for our global and regional work. What we’re hoping to achieve through our partnerships is to more strategically reach a wider network of our audiences with family planning and reproductive health (FP/RH) knowledge. We’re just one project and there are a lot of other groups, organizations, and donors doing really important work in FP/RH.

We also work with partners who express a need to improve their capacity in the strategic and systematic use of knowledge. For organizations that lead Technical Working Groups or Communities of Practice, the project has a lot to offer in terms of techniques for finding, using, and sharing knowledge. 

What we add is the focus on knowledge management—particularly improving peer-to-peer knowledge exchange across countries and regions. Participants in these groups have expressed the need to continue to network and share challenges and strategies with each other, in-between the regular in-person meetings. So Knowledge SUCCESS is working on a number of activities that allow FP/RH professionals to learn from each other—such as setting up virtual knowledge exchange groups and collecting stories about program implementation successes and challenges. 

family planning partnerships

 Photo: Youth participants during the FP2020 Francophone Focal Points Workshop in Dakar, Senegal in March 2020. Knowledge SUCCESS staff helped execute this event and meet the knowledge needs of FP2020 focal points—with a focus on youth and civil society focal points. (Photo credit: FP2020, Twitter)

Who is Knowledge SUCCESS currently partnering with?

Sarah: Beyond our core partnership of Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, Amref Health Africa, and FHI 360, Knowledge SUCCESS partners with a range of projects working in the FP/RH space to provide strategic and systematic technical assistance. Specifically, we are beginning to work with other USAID FP/RH projects—including those that focus on service delivery, policy, and research—to develop knowledge management strategies and improve knowledge exchange efforts. These strategies will include activities like hosting virtual learning exchange sessions—to make sure that the learning from across their projects are being shared so other teams can adapt in real time. We will also work with implementing partners to synthesize learning and evidence on particular family planning topics into digestible formats like infographics or stories, so this information is easily accessible and can be incorporated into their programs.

Our main global partners are Family Planning 2020 and the IBP Network. It makes a lot of sense to work with these strong FP/RH networks instead of reinventing the wheel. Our project complements these two groups really well because they are both hubs that work across countries, regions, and organizations. FP2020 works in 69 countries globally and IBP Network has members in over 100 countries. Other key global-level partnerships include organizations like the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition and the International Youth Alliance for Family Planning. Again, these are networks with broad memberships. We’re also establishing partners at the regional and country levels.

Partnerships have led to increased donor support, increased global advocacy, and improved policy for family planning. The evidence shows us that partnerships and coalitions are the wave of the future.

Sarah Harlan, @SarahVivianMPH Tweet

What are some different ways that groups can partner with the project?

Sarah: One big goal of our project is making information available and accessible. On our website, we feature highlights and big ideas from reports, data, and journal articles developed by subject matter experts in a way that is clear and easy for the reader to quickly digest. Partners can work with us by suggesting materials for us to write about, contributing their own articles, or cross-posting our content through their networks and platforms. Partnerships are therefore a key link to those experts working on service delivery and other direct family planning programs.

Another partnership opportunity at the global, regional, or potentially country level is through our knowledge-sharing activities. For instance, we are currently co-hosting a number of workshops to improve knowledge exchange among FP/RH professionals.

Finally, FP/RH projects looking for specialized help with knowledge sharing and capacity strengthening can reach out to us directly.

What would you say a successful partnership looks like and how do you measure success?

Sarah: It’s really important to nurture a professional partnership just like any personal relationship. Give it time to cultivate and grow. Sometimes it takes a while for projects to find a groove before figuring out a really productive activity to work on together. You may be talking with a partner with similar interests and a similar mission, and it seems like there’s a lot you could do together. But it could be weeks or months before you find that specific activity. 

It’s important to think very concretely about goals. Ask yourself, “What is our goal and what are we going to accomplish together?” Some of the best partnerships that I’ve worked on, including groups like IBP Network, Family Planning 2020, and the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition working groups, have had a very specific deliverable that was based on a shared goal. 

Under the Knowledge for Health (K4Health) Project, we developed indicators to measure successful partnerships that measure aspects like mutual goals, deliverables, respect, and trust.

 Photo: Knowledge SUCCESS led a co-creation workshop for the PHE community in February 2020.

Why are strategic partnerships important in FP/RH? How can they benefit projects and programs?

Sarah: There has been so much more momentum around family planning, especially over the last decade. And we have evidence that partnership has been a key component to that. Partnerships have led to increased donor support, increased global advocacy, and improved policy for family planning. The evidence shows us that partnerships and coalitions are the wave of the future. And I think we’ll see even more of them as we move forward.

Another benefit is the opportunity to leverage skills. Every project or organization has a slightly different focus and skill set. On Knowledge SUCCESS, our team has expertise in knowledge management, but we may not have the same level of skills in service delivery or supply chain. If we want to do an activity related to one of those topics, we would partner with an organization that does have that expertise. By combining our skills and working as a coalition, we can do a lot more. 

It’s really important to nurture a professional partnership just like any personal relationship. Give it time to cultivate and grow.

Sarah Harlan, @SarahVivianMPH Tweet

What are some challenges that partners may encounter when working together? And what advice can you offer to help projects overcome them?

Sarah: Even if it may seem like you have very similar interests and goals, there can be roadblocks. One piece of advice I would give is to be very upfront at the beginning of any partnership about what you bring to the table and what you’re hoping to get out of the partnership. And ask all of your partners to do the same. Not every partner has the same goals or agenda, and that’s okay. But if all of that is on the table and you can come up with activities that have mutual benefit for all of the partners, that’s when you’re going to have the most success and make the most impact.

What is something surprising you learned from working with partners?

Sarah: One thing I learned is the importance of face-to-face time. An in-person meeting or a simple working lunch can go a long way. For our partners working in other countries, even video chats can make a big difference. Ultimately, we are human beings, and so that personal connection that allows us to know each other as people beyond our jobs—as touchy-feely as it might sound—can actually help us do better work.

Something else we have learned is the importance of properly acknowledging everyone’s contributions and making sure that all partners feel appreciated. A lot of partnership work is done on folks’ own time. It’s not necessarily part of their scope of work, especially for our local and regional level partners.

Any final thoughts?

Sarah: Partnerships are really important for the FP/RH knowledge that we share, and the work across the board with Knowledge SUCCESS. We have a lot of technical experts on our team, but reaching out to partners and having people contribute to our website and our different products can really improve the quality of our work. We couldn’t do the work that we do without our partners.

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