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Cultivating a lasting partnership

In this chapter

  • A diversity of partners creates resilience in the partnership, allowing each individual and organisation to work from their unique strengths.
  • A compelling shared vision for landscape restoration is necessary for the partnership’s success.
  • The strength of the local team designing and implementing a landscape initiative determines its ultimate success.
  • Long-term partnerships require long-term commitments and leadership.
  • Partnerships thrive through both challenges and successes.
  • Establishing defined and formalised partnerships with legal agreements is recommended because this can help structure, organise, coordinate, and govern efforts, maximising the efficacy of landscape restoration activities.

A strong landscape partnership is the fertile ground for a successful and long-lasting landscape restoration programme. In a landscape partnership, stakeholders engage in dialogue, learning, and the coordination of activities over significant timeframes. Here we consider the conditions, challenges and opportunities for growing and nurturing long-term partnerships.

Key stakeholder groups in landscape partnerships are typically people living in the landscape, representatives from business and finance sectors, NGOs, associations, and governmental agencies. The springboard for a partnership often originates from a handful of front-running individuals or organisations within the landscape and the partnership grows gradually as additional stakeholders are mobilised. There are costs associated with structured, organised, and governed partnerships, so we explore the need for funding in the chapter Landscape finance.

Resilience in the face of change and complexity

Landscapes are vast and complex systems, making it challenging to predict how changes will impact the entire ecosystem. When dealing with large landscapes (more than 100,000 hectares), gaining an overview of the complexities becomes more difficult because no single organisation can manage everything. Bringing together a variety of stakeholders creates a more resilient system where each organisation contributes, from a unique perspective, towards a shared vision. Each individual and organisation has a role to play based on its strengths and specialities. 

If one stakeholder inadvertently disrupts the system, the network of diverse stakeholders can help it stay together, adapt, and recover. It’s important to find a balance, however, because too much complexity can also have disadvantages. Having stakeholders with a shared reason for developing the partnership is crucial, so caution is required when bringing in additional parties. 

As partners’ understanding of each other deepens and they share responsibilities, this may create redundancies. But this overlap and redundancy — which could be seen as inefficiencies — are what instil partnerships with high-level adaptability and efficacy.

A shared vision

For the partnership to thrive, it must go beyond the individual objectives of each organisation and align them towards a shared vision. Establishing partnerships primarily for fundraising can bring long-term challenges. It changes the focus to monetary goals. This may lead to friction when adjustments are needed to create the desired impact. It is best to first align on the vision and mission of the partnership, connected to strategic goals, and only then consider financial impact. 

A shared vision for landscape restoration is necessary for the partnership’s success. The vision should be clear and compelling, but flexible. Conversations often begin around the return of inspiration — a key deliverable of the 4 Returns Framework — and a commitment to long-term collaboration. The return of inspiration plays a significant role in opening people’s hearts, fostering conversations about personal circumstances and considerations. The chapter Creating a shared vision for the landscape goes into the intricacies of aligning on a shared vision.

Formalising partnerships

Partnerships often start as loose structures, but sometimes it’s best to formalise them. In this section, we provide guidance on this process. 

Governance and governance structures

Creating a governance structure is an important step in formalising a partnership. It describes the roles, responsibilities, rules, and processes of a partnership’s governance. It should support the shared vision, strategic goals, and values of the partners. Even if you don’t design a governance structure consciously, one will still operate subconsciously. Being aware of this enables clearer agreements and reference points during disagreements. 

Specifying what each member will not do can be just as important as detailing their responsibilities. Clarity on limitations can increase understanding of roles and boundaries. Jointly making and agreeing on a RASCI (responsible, accountable, supportive, consulted, informed) matrix can be a great way to lay the basis for a governance structure. 

We recommend learning more about the work of Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom. She was a renowned political economist recognised for her ground-breaking work on the governance of common-pool resources. She demonstrated that communities could manage shared resources effectively without external regulation. Ostrom identified eight design principles for sustainable resource management, emphasising the importance of local knowledge, cooperation, and decentralised and adaptive governance structures. To learn more about Ostrom’s principles and how to apply them in practice, check out the tools, courses, and resources from ProSocial World. They adapted Ostrom’s principles into a practical process for guiding successful cooperation groups.

Contracts and agreements

Documents and their legal status may differ between countries. The most common contracts and agreements for partnerships are:

  • Partnership charter or Letter of intent. A document that outlines the shared vision of the partnership, not legally binding
  • Memorandum of understanding. An agreement between parties outlining the purpose or goal following joint action; more formal than a letter of intent, but not legally binding
  • Collaboration agreement. A legally binding agreement between parties

The governance structure should evolve over time, so it is advisable to review agreements periodically to check they are still suitable.

Landscape teams

The strength of the local team designing and implementing a landscape initiative determines its ultimate success. The team may consist of individuals from an organisation, as well as key partners in the landscape. Drawing a team from the community may foster local ownership, which accelerates realisation of the landscape vision. 

In this section, we explain how to build up and empower strong teams for holistic landscape restoration, with clear roles and responsibilities, embedded in the local environment. Our guidance is drawn from the collective experience of Commonland’s partners who have set up, managed, and developed strong teams in a variety of landscapes. It will help you select the right people for the job and prepare you for what to expect as your team’s needs change. 

Roles change

Different people are needed as the landscape programme evolves. At the outset, the initiative will have limited resources, so it relies on the passion of the team. Positivity, drive, motivation, and enthusiasm are traits that cannot be learned. Look for these qualities in the people you hire. Core team members need to be flexible with their time and able to handle change and adversity well. Start small — two to five people are usually all that is needed at this stage. 

Initial priorities are likely to be around developing relationships with farmers, building or connecting to a farmer network, conducting a landscape and stakeholder analysis (see the chapter Defining the landscape), and creating pilot projects. So, you need people who can switch perspectives — from a farmer’s to a regional government worker’s, for example. Generalist skillsets are most useful in the beginning. 

Key roles at the start-up phase are:

  • Initiative coordinator. Well-connected in the landscape and can inspire others; has strong project and programme management skills
  • Community mobiliser. Preferably someone originally from the landscape who will bring all stakeholders together, support them in their change process, and match them with internationally proven solutions; skilled at building relationships of trust and inspiration
  • Knowledge broker. Has good technical knowledge and the ability to translate and communicate it to stakeholders
  • Business case developer. Improves existing business models and sets up new ones to power landscape restoration, needs an entrepreneurial mindset and experience in developing and sustaining businesses

For specialist expertise, it may be wise to hire consultants. You get access to their knowledge without putting them on a payroll. In the long run, consultants are more expensive than employees, but in this phase, their value is in their flexibility. This is a good option for a start-up that has an uncertain financial future or is in an exploratory stage.

"The beauty and the risk of a start-up are that everyone brings their ideals to it."

Ben Cole, former managing director, current executive director, Wide Open Agriculture

As your initiative matures, roles will change. Some will be added, and others cut away. It’s important to make these hard decisions early, especially in NGOs where key performance indicators and accountability might be less clear. Idealism tends to drop, and pragmatism starts to rise, as initial passion gives way to hard work. This will be reflected in the personalities of the team. 

You’ll start hiring specialists — specifically business development, agriculture, ecosystem restoration, and finance. Roles that become important after two to three years include: 

  • Inspirer / visionary
  • Project coordinator
  • Finance manager
  • Business coordinator
  • Marketing and communications professional
  • Natural areas restoration specialist
  • Regenerative agriculture specialist
  • Culture, stories, and inspiration specialist
  • Research and education specialist
  • Monitoring, evaluation, and learning specialist

Work towards a team that does not rely on one person – avoiding ‘key person risk’. At this stage, distribute decision-making across the organisation.

It is important to define roles and responsibilities clearly, especially as they evolve. Open communication, trust, and transparency among team members are fundamental for smooth functioning. Coordinators aid this by motivating, trusting, and supporting their team members. 

Connection to the landscape

All team members should feel connected to the landscape and understand its local language and culture. Some roles, such as landscape mobiliser, are played more effectively by a person living in or originating from the landscape. Key stakeholders and residents must be able to trust your team, and this is more likely when local people see you as “one of them”. 

Non-local people also have their strengths, such as bringing new energy when a system is stuck. They can ask the so-called “obvious” questions that locals may feel they can’t. Seen as a neutral party, they can also mediate conflict. Humility is key for people who do not live in or originate from the landscape. 

It’s important to note that requiring new employees to move to the landscape can put them under pressure. They may struggle to build a new social network. Make sure applicants are aware of this during the hiring process, but also take responsibility as an organisation in developing a culture of work-life balance.

Volunteers

Eager to learn, enthusiastic to work, and requiring little or no financial resources to hire, volunteers can be a valuable addition to your landscape programme. They may need careful guidance to do the job well, so consider whether it is worth the effort before getting them involved. 

Ecosystem Restoration Communities offers interesting volunteer projects around the world. The foundation’s camps offer a place to stay and a learning environment. Find out more here.

Legal status

The legal status of a holistic landscape restoration organisation — for example, limited liability company, foundation, association, community interest company — influences its operations, regulatory compliance, and operational boundaries. Each country has various legal structures, each with pros and cons. It’s important to establish the best fit for the context. Changing the legal form after setup is challenging, so researching beforehand and seeking advice from similar organisations is advisable. 

Internal processes

Establishing effective internal processes is important for the efficient functioning of an organisation. Tasks such as administration, human resources, and bookkeeping may seem daunting, but they facilitate financial planning, accounting, and reporting for stakeholders. They also streamline contracting procedures and raise team members’ confidence. Neglecting to set up efficient processes can result in complications and disorder, ultimately endangering the initiative. 

A partnership that lasts

Holistic landscape restoration is a long-term endeavour. The 4 Returns Framework suggests that 20 years is the minimum amount of time needed to achieve large-scale, lasting change. This means you are in it for the long run. There will be times when you face difficulties and when a partnership may be under pressure. That is when you must have each other’s backs. Partners can take risks that they may not have taken if they were in this alone when they know they are supported. 

It helps to spend time understanding each other’s situations and finding ways to navigate different ways of working. Celebrate your differences because these offer opportunities for understanding other perspectives and stretching beyond your comfort zone. 

Building trust and understanding

If a shared vision is the fuel that drives the partnership, trust between partners is the oil that lubricates its moving parts. Trusting each other is essential for the freedom and confidence needed to pursue goals and navigate failures. The strength of a partnership lies in human relationships more than the content. Enduring trust takes time to build, but when it’s strong, it enables teams to act cohesively and take calculated risks without fear.

Trust is cultivated through assuming good intentions, creating safe spaces, transparency, embracing mistakes, and creating space for difficult conversations. Communication is key. Verbal communication helps understanding and prevents misunderstandings that can arise from written communication. 

Holistic understanding means that every member understands the big picture, their role, and shared goals. Leaders play a crucial role in creating trust and sharing information within their organisations. They should take a nurturing approach by building relationships, emphasising common goals, and encouraging individual growth and critical thinking. Transparency in decision-making also helps to build trust and ensure everyone understands the partnership’s objectives. 

"For us, the most important is confidence. Confidence in each other and the team."

Elvira Marín, former Coordinator, AlVelAl, currently Directo, Aland Foundation

Celebrate friction

As diverse perspectives are brought together, some friction, and differing opinions are inevitable. How we deal with friction determines whether it has a positive or negative outcome on our relationships. We need to take the heat out of conflict and turn it into a learning opportunity. Without friction, there is no shine. 

Conflict often comes from different views on strategy — opinions about the best way to get to a goal — rather than from a difference in core values. To resolve conflict, it is best to park the disagreement and spend time listening to each other’s core values. A stakeholder approach — such as Theory U, Mutual Gains Approach to negotiation, or nonviolent communication techniques — offers tools to align core values. When these are agreed, you can redesign the strategy in a way that takes account of the values of all parties. 

Scaling up

As your holistic landscape restoration project scales up, you will extend partnerships beyond the original partners. Achieving the same sense of partnership among a larger group of people, who may never interact personally, can appear challenging. A strong vision will keep the partnership going. 

This phase is about opening the partnership to newcomers. Exclusivity is a killer of collaborations. You could start by inviting a small selection of stakeholders to join, but you must keep extending the invitation. The open invitation should entice people from diverse backgrounds, not just for their technical skills, but also for the social capital they bring. 

This is the moment to organise distributed leadership, which means that that decision-making takes place at the “lowest” level, or as close to the action as possible, rather than always being coordinated centrally. Distributed leadership empowers decision-making in complex contexts such as landscape partnerships. 

Learn more

Here are some resources to learn more about building succesful partnerships.

What’s next

Having introduced the formal and informal aspects of landscape partnerships, it’s time to dive deeper. How can we create spaces of belonging that enable systemic collaboration across landscapes?

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