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How to Build a RAFT

Bleaney, Allison; Sherwood, Kristin 7/29/2012

Do we REALLY have to partner?

“When I first began to understand the role of illegal logging and the global timber trade as a driver of deforestation in Asia Pacific, I knew it was going to require an approach that was different from anything we had tried previously,” reflects Jack Hurd, one of the thought-leaders of a Conservancy-led partnership called Responsible Asia Forestry and Trade (RAFT).

While protected areas are an important part of most conservation strategies, in Asia Pacific, some of the most ecologically important areas – like Orangutan habitat – are found within timber concessions that are owned by the government and leased to private companies. Conserving these areas requires a combination of better public policies and better corporate practices, including collaborative management arrangements with local communities. Due the global nature of the timber supply chain, there are multiple inflection points where a single decision can have far-reaching implications; from showroom floor, to factory, to forest. This necessitates working in multiple countries at the same time.

“As we grappled with the question of how we could even begin to influence a multi-million dollar industry with our limited funding and staff capacity, we realized that there were others that felt the same way. For years, we had been competing for funds, but each of these efforts on their own was never going to be enough to halt and ultimately begin to reverse the trajectory of deforestation.” In 2006, Jack and others started a conversation about doing something bigger together.

Read on, and see what might resonate with you.

TIP:  Partnering with organizations operating in the same space is an effective way to both inform public policies (which ultimately sanction the behavior of industry) and translate these policies into better practices on the ground.

Working together…not just on paper

Of course, partnership can mean a lot of things and is easier said than done. When RAFT began, there was not a clear recipe for organizing the partnership. It required trial and error.

RAFT started off with a diverse group of partners – from businesses, to NGOs, to inter-governmental organizations – active across eight countries. All of these partners had something different to offer, but the relationship of each one to the program and their unique roles were not clearly defined. This risked having a “partnership” that was nothing more than a group of organizations operating individually, with only their funding source in common. The challenge was to make the transition to a true partnership in which, by working together, the program was able to achieve more than the sum of its parts. So, how did we do it?

Building a core

One of the first things RAFT did was to identify a group of ‘implementing partners’ (using clear criteria[1]) and define each partner’s distinct role and contribution to the program. Identifying this core group made it possible to plan work jointly and openly assess implementation across the program. This helped reduce conflict and duplication, and allowed partners to be strategic about directing their unique skills and expertise toward a set of common goals.

For example, getting a big timber concession certified to the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an enormous task. Under RAFT, the Conservancy was able to focus on identification of high conservation value forests[2], with partners like the Tropical Forest Foundation (TFF) taking the lead on legality verification, reduced impact logging and the administrative elements of getting FSC certified. Other partners, like TFT (The Forest Trust), worked with the factories that buy FSC-certified wood to connect responsible producers, processors and buyers. Working this way, the program was able to help bring more than three million acres of tropical forest under FSC-certified sustainable forest management.

TIP: Each core partner organization needs to have a clearly defined role or niche, so that overlap is limited and value-added is clear.

Collaborator or competition?

RAFT brought together organizations that in most circumstances are ‘the competition’. As the same core group began to meet every six months and instances of joint implementation grew, strong personal relationships developed. These relationships were critical in reducing ‘turf wars’ and the resulting confusion this created for the companies and decision makers the program engaged. Partners were able to deliver clearer and more consistent messages and solutions with a single, stronger voice.

“When we started, we had our issues and turf wars at times,” explains WWF-Malaysia’s Ivy Wong. “I think it was building that trust among the other agencies that are part of this program, that we can go beyond that, and now we are able to come to the table with our partners and offer joint solutions to the companies and the governments.”

TIP: Personal relations matter – regular face-to-face meetings and joint-implementation strengthen partner relations over time, leading to better, more cost-efficient activities.

Keeping a bird’s-eye view

Part of what distinguished RAFT was a sufficiently resourced management team tasked with finding the appropriate nexus of interaction between partner organizations in order to achieve large-scale results. This enabled RAFT to be strategic and respond to new opportunities, a key feature in realizing added value and helping the program stay relevant and forward looking.

For example, as international deliberations on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) picked up speed, RAFT’s work with timber concessions in Indonesia provided the necessary field sites and relationships to dig deeper into the linkages between climate change and improved forest management. This has placed the Conservancy at the forefront of a new science – carbon accounting for industrial logging. Early findings suggest that a set of specific management practices could reduce emissions by 36 percent without any decrease in timber production[3]. This is generating the science and methods that could underpin even stronger incentives to make the change from conventional logging to sustainable forest management.

TIP: Investing in a strong management team with the ability to maintain a bird’s-eye view of partners’ work enables the program to stay strategic and innovative.

Communicating partnership

RAFT combined external and internal communications under one designated role within the management team, and within one communications strategy. Central to the strategy was the decision to brand RAFT as a partnership and to design promotion and outreach around the issues the program sought to address and the approach used, rather than focusing on the individual organizations involved. This created ownership across the partnership and made use of existing external communications capacity within organizations with the result that all partners acted as the voices and ‘ambassadors’ of the program.

TIP: Focusing on improved internal communications within a partnership can be a great way to inform and amplify external communications.

Built to last

Although RAFT ended in December 2011, it continues to attract interest from prospective supporters who recognize that addressing the biggest and most urgent conservation challenges we face requires effective partnerships and a sustained commitment of time and energy. “We have always joked that we would have a perfectly humming partnership by the end of the program,” says Jack, “and that is what has happened.”  Efforts are now underway to take advantage of the name brand recognition in the region and to build a multi-donor platform to continue the collaborative effort.

TIP: Seeing partners themselves as vehicles for sustainability and incorporating this into program planning and budgeting is an important way attract continued resources to program goals beyond the life of a funded partnership.

The structure and relationships that RAFT developed have made it an efficient platform for achieving large-scale conservation goals, whether for forests, agricultural lands, oceans or fresh water. “RAFT provides an efficient platform for all these players to coordinate their work, so they’re not duplicating each other,” says USAID Environment Director for Asia Winston Bowman. “They’re playing off each others’ strengths and achieving maximum impact.” Efforts like this reinforce the Conservancy’s reputation for pragmatism and being solution-oriented. They position us as strategic convener with the ability to maximize our conservation impact, allowing our scientific and technical expertise to be part of truly global solutions. This is where we want to be.

To dig deeper into RAFT’s partnership approach and to learn about what we’ve achieved through stories of change, check out www.responsibleasia.org. And for more tools and tricks to managing a partnership, see www.conservationpartnerships.org


[1] Organizational mission and expertise; involvement in and support for ongoing programs complementary to RAFT’s overall goal; existing networks and relationships with key actors; and, places they have a presence.

[2] ‘High conservation values’ are a set of 6 environmental, social and cultural attributes found in forests that are considered to be of exceptional importance or critical at the local, regional or global level. See a list here: http://www.hcvnetwork.org/site-info/The%20high-conservation-values-folder

[3] These practices include: (1) not felling defective trees, such as hollow trees that cannot be turned into timber and sold and are left to decompose; (2) using a ‘monocable’ winch to remove logs from the forest instead of a bulldozer, reducing damage to the forest by 70 percent ; and (3) narrowing haul road corridors, meaning less unnecessary uprooting of young trees.