December 22, 2015

Six individual competencies for working with multi-stakeholder partnerships

Minu Hemmati, CatalySD Herman Brouwer, Wageningen UR, Centre for Development Innovation Jim Woodhill

Good multi-stakeholder partnerships (MSPs) don’t just happen.

As discussed in our previous blog, multi-stakeholder partnerships (MSPs) need to be carefully designed and facilitated. People working with MSPs in landscapes are brokering, convening, and moderating communication, meetings, and joint action – all of which can be part of MSP facilitation. Some come to this role from a professional process consultant background, but many come from a range of disciplines and professions involved with work in landscapes. There are pros and cons to working with external consultants or building facilitation capacities within landscapes. Combining both in a facilitation team will deliver the best results.

Facilitating complex system change processes–such as MSPs–is a multi-faceted role and requires a set of analytical, creative, and emotional competencies. Professionals can acquire these skills through their studies, but obtaining many other skills requires practise and experience. Together, they constitute a combination of art, science, and skill (Mann 2007).


To design and facilitate decision-making among diverse groups of stakeholders, facilitators must have a versatile set of analytical, creative, and communication skills. Landscape art and photo by Jenn Chapman, 2001.

Competencies grounded in values, principles, research, and experience

For facilitators to design and guide the activities of multi-stakeholder partnerships, they must be proficient in the six following competencies:

1. Understanding the context

In aiming to bring together all stakeholders in a particular landscape, we need to understand the ecological, social, and economic conditions involved. Some factors to consider are local actors and actors beyond the locality (and their worldviews, interests, incentive systems, and theories of change), the (power) dynamics among them, and how things developed over time, and which processes are currently underway.

We have not seen successful processes where facilitators were uninformed about the contexts in which the MSPs were operating.

As knowledgeable facilitators will inevitably have opinions about the issues, they will need to demonstrate neutrality by being open about their views, as well as how they are managing these throughout the facilitation process.

2. Knowing and developing yourself

Self-awareness is essential when operating in a multi-stakeholder environment and facilitation requires significant levels of individual development. We need to be aware of our own characteristics and behavioural tendencies, particularly when we are engaged in social interactions.

When facilitating MSPs, we are connecting in a genuine manner with stakeholders, modelling authentic communication, and getting to know individuals, groups, and issues that sometimes deeply affect us. We project – and in turn evoke – respect, trust, confidence, authenticity, empathy, flexibility, goal orientation, and good humour.

In order to do all of this, we need to master core dialogic competencies such as voicing opinions, practicing active listening, respecting the ‘other,’ and suspending judgement. Personal development helps us counter fear of opposition, conflict, or expressions of distrust, and enables us to turn these challenges into opportunities for reflection and creative problem solving.

3. Envisioning the process

Working in MSPs, we need to imagine the whole process over time, embedded in the context and subject to dynamics from within and outside the system, including social groups, institutions, and individuals. We need to hold a complex picture in mind, and keep it open even when we cannot yet see a clear path for systematic changes. These transformations emerge as we lay out the groundwork of the envisioned process. Our thinking and planning must be flexible (yet goal-oriented) and we need to encourage both of these qualities throughout the process. This is challenging in cognitive, administrative, and logistical terms, but also emotionally.

For example, we may have an idea of a series of smaller meetings in a local landscape that shall lead up to a bigger one. Yet, things may turn out differently when a major stakeholder moves a big meeting forward. As this implies that the planned conversations will come in a different order, we will have to revise our plans, design them differently, and get everyone on board again.

4. Epistemology

Everyone approaches an MSP from perspectives shaped by their own truths. Yet, no one can claim to hold ‘the truth’. This is a basic epistemological assumption that underpins MSPs.

Our viewpoints depend on our roles and positions in society, our history, language, values, hopes, desires and fears, abilities, and resources — we all live in different worlds; recognising different ‘truths’ can help foster mutual respect. This does not necessarily mean that these truths must agree with each other, but it is important to acknowledge the fact that there are diverse viewpoints. The challenge lies in how to respect every stakeholder’s ‘truths’ while creating integrated solutions. Facilitators help to create paths toward that goal by proposing suitable processes, useful methods, and agreeable agendas.

5. Methods & tools

Facilitation literature is constantly producing creative ideas, as well as new tools, methods, and formats. While individual preferences and experiences play a role, we should not limit ourselves to a small set of methods; not everything can be “World-Café’d” or “Open Space’d.” Rather, we should choose from the wide range of available tools, and do so in consultation with a core group of stakeholders in the landscape. Purpose and desired outcomes guide our choices, while context and framework conditions further determines the action items applied in any given situation.

The MSP Guide presents and introduces 60 participatory tools for analysis, planning, and decision-making according to the purpose of each tool.

The MSP Guide features 60 participatory tools for analysis, planning, and decision-making that can help guide the design, facilitation, and coordination of multi-stakeholder partnerships. Visit the Wageningen UR, CDI MSP Portal to learn more about these tools.

 6 – Teamwork

All of the competencies described here are necessary for designing and facilitating successful MSPs. However, it is not necessary for a single individual to hold all of these qualities. Creating a core team that includes facilitators and main stakeholders can help pool necessary competencies. As they share the task, people also learn from each other and further build their capacities.

Careful design and facilitation of the MSP process can guide the successful implementation of SDGs

We need multi-stakeholder partnerships for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.  These partnerships must include all relevant stakeholders to identify challenges, create integrated solutions, and collaborate in the implementation of the Post Development Agenda. Hence, building capacities for process design and facilitation is instrumental to achieving the SDGs.

Capacity building can be included in the facilitation of multi-stakeholder partnerships to create direct benefits and support effective communication and collaboration among partners. Identifying the strengths of each stakeholder also helps to build the capacity of various players to constructively express their needs and lend their specific qualifications, strengths, and talents to the success of the partnership.

Read More

Seven principles for effective and healthy multi-stakeholder partnerships.

Mann, T. 2007. Facilitation–an art form, science, skill or all three? Build your expertise in facilitation.

Do you want to build the capacity of stakeholders of make landscape-scale decisions? The following courses deal with multi-stakeholder design and facilitation to help those who are working with MSPs in landscapes around the world:

(In English): Facilitating multi-stakeholder partnerships and institutional change, 3-week residential courses in the Netherlands at Wageningen UR, CDI

(In German) Moderation in der Nachhaltigkeit, 2 x 2,5 days courses at the Pestel-Institut in Hannover, Germany

(In English) Governance of Landscapes, Forests and People, 2-week residential course in Indonesia in April 2016 organized by Wageningen UR, CDI

Dr. Minu Hemmati is an associate with CatalySD Sustainability | Communications, an independent advisor on sustainable development, participatory decision-making and multi-stakeholder processes ( and a board member of EcoAgriculture Partners. Herman Brouwer is a Senior Advisor in Multi-stakeholder Processes in Food Security with Wageningen UR, Center for Development Innovation.  Jim Woodhill, the former Director of the Wageningen UR, CDI, has served as a Sector Specialist for Food Security and Rural Development at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade until November 2015. Together with Simone van Vugt and Karèn Verhoosel, they are the authors of the book The MSP Guide, published by the Wageningen UR, CDI in October 2015.

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Learn more about how to work with multi-stakeholder partnerships to advance sustainable development goals here.

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