The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose.
– Ecclesiastes 1-5
In a recent study, we explored whether and how to launch multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs)—often called partnerships, alliances, and other names—to address global challenges. Numerous funders we interviewed raised a question that was out of the scope of our study, yet is critical in our resource-constrained global development sector: When and how should a multi-stakeholder initiative shut down?
We believe the role of MSIs should be catalytic rather than institutional; they should not exist in perpetuity, but rather should tackle a goal-driven and time-bound body of work. We urge MSIs (and other development projects, for that matter) to launch with a time-bound charter and to sustain work beyond that period only under exceptional circumstances. The duration of the charter may depend on the system that the MSI aims to alter—addressing government failures might take longer than repairing commercial markets, for example—but with this framing, an MSI can clearly define progress milestones, and share any co-developed tools and knowledge among existing entities or partners before shutting down.
It’s essential to think critically about when and how an MSI should wind down—especially given that the global development sector lacks resources but is abundant in fragmented entities. These dynamics perpetuate what one interviewee described as “zombie partnerships.” He commented, “The conflation of an MSI’s strategy failure and execution failure exacerbates the problem, because it can come across as a failure of organizations to partner, compared with the failure of the partnership to realize impact. And people don’t like that, so they continue to partner for the sake of partnering.”
Make hay while the sun shines
In fact, in our research, we found no MSIs that launched with a clear, time-bound mandate and deliberately shut down after accomplishing their missions. Rather, many have continued operations much longer than expected. For example, the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP)—a global partnership of 34 organizations working on financial inclusion—was originally set up in 1995 with a three-year charter, but has persisted for more than 20 years. CGAP, however, might be the exception rather than the rule, given its unique ability to continually achieve successes and reorient itself to an evolving field. We credit that dynamism to strong leadership, good governance, and a high-bandwidth relationship with its partners and the field.
One MSI in our sample, mHealth Alliance—which advocated for the use of mobile technologies to improve health outcomes—came to a successful sunset (albeit without a deliberate plan to do so from the beginning) after five years of successful mobile health awareness-building, policy, and advocacy work. The UN Foundation and other partners made the strategic decision to shut down based on the executive director’s recommendation. The Alliance had moved beyond its mandate, and leadership recognized that partners’ resources could make a greater impact through localized implementation support, which the Alliance wasn’t structured to do. The team, with many of the same supporters, resurrected in 2014 as a new entity based in South Africa, HealthEnabled, which focuses on the next digital health challenge: taking small, disparate pilots to meaningful scale at a national level.
When to end?
We recommend that MSIs consider at launch how they will eventually wind down, but we also need clearer guideposts for MSIs already operating in the global development sector that can help then determine when and how to sunset. Based on our interviews with more than 30 early MSI funders and implementers, and a recent exercise facilitating the next five-year plan for an MSI in the economic development space, we identified three questions than can help MSI partners determine whether to shut down or significantly evolve their mission:
1. How has the partnership performed against milestones? Most MSIs are startups with the familiar, early-stage venture risks associated with leadership, strategy, funding, and governance, so we would expect to see some fail, some struggle, and some succeed. Only high-performing MSIs should even be considered for sustaining. Low-performing MSIs should be shut down, rather than sustained as “zombie partnerships” for the sake of goodwill when their resources could be better deployed elsewhere. We recommend—presuming the partnership is operating against a well-defined set of milestones towards a specific, achievable five-year goal in the first place—MSIs gather annual feedback from stakeholders to track their progress, and conducting a larger, independent evaluation in year four.
2. How aligned is the MSI with the evolution and needs of the field or market? Emerging fields and markets will inevitably change. The mHealth Alliance, for example, initially prioritized increasing awareness of mobile health in the development community, creating the proof points and business case for mobile health applications, and shaping the policy and funding environment. After five years, several thousand mobile health pilots existed around the world, and governments started adopting mobile health policies. At that point, the field no longer needed to “let a thousand flowers bloom,” rather it needed to outline national blueprints to help providers integrate and scale their applications.
This evolution is not unusual for a field; successful field building often heightens the need for strong implementation, supported by policy and private sector partnerships. Few MSIs succeed in both phases, which leads to the next consideration.
3. Does the MSI still have the right capabilities and a comparative advantage, or is it even still necessary? Sometimes an MSI must shift its mandate. In many cases, the advocacy skills required to promote a new field are different from the technical and partnership capabilities needed to scale a field. For example, an MSI’s initial focus may be advocacy and promoting membership of governments, corporations, and NGOs, but after hitting certain milestones, its mandate may expand to include knowledge and learning activities not required at the initial stage.
Partners should also consider whether another existing institution (or set of institutions) is positioned to take on the MSI’s original mandate. For example, an existing organization like the UN Food and Agricultural Organization might take over an agricultural initiative, or the International Finance Corporation might take over an investment-focused one. Sometimes a field or market may have even developed enough for individual organizations to carry the work forward without the strong coordination of an MSI. As such, MSI leaders must understand whether the market will “self-correct” and provide certain services unaided, or whether an existing institution can take over the mandate in its day-to-day work.
Anatomy of a sunset
Careful consideration of these questions will likely lead many MSIs to prepare for sunset. In rare cases, an MSI may declare complete success or failure across a field—and no other work is required. But in cases where the initial mandate has been achieved and continued monitoring or implementation remains necessary, the decision to wind down then raises two final considerations about how to do so:
1. Finding a permanent institutional home: When an MSI is ready to sunset, its forward momentum can often continue within a permanent institutional home, or set of homes. A suitable permanent home depends on several factors: capacity to absorb the post-MSI work, political will and alignment with the mission of the MSI, ability to generate and pool resources to support the work (without dissolving the original MSI mission into core operational priorities), credibility among stakeholders, and strong leadership.
2. Setting a clear horizon to transition assets: Without a clear management plan and a 12-24 month (minimum) transition timeline, the practicalities of shutting down an MSI and transitioning remaining assets can get messy. In addition, important staff could leave well before the transition, potentially hobbling the MSI’s ability to continue its work. In some cases, as you would see for a private sector liquidation or acquisition, a third party can support this process.
Preparing this shift with ample time allows for necessary career transitions, asset placement, and documentation. MSIs often become knowledge hubs—sometimes inadvertently—as many work in nascent fields, so it is also critical for a sunsetting MSI to capture everything it has learned in a format that others can easily use.
Starting up and shutting down an MSI over a short time period is not without its own challenges—including motivating staff for a time-bound period and aligning expectations with funders. However, with an estimated $2.5 trillion annual gap in funding needed to achieve the SDGs, it is more important than ever that we focus resources—and time, attention, and expertise—toward reaching the best possible results.