Appreciative Approach to Partnerships graphic

EnCompass’ Appreciative Approach to Partnerships—Leveraging Strengths and Delivering Solutions

Written by: Brent Keener, Associate Director for Outreach and Partnerships,

In international development, donor-funded agreements (e.g., contracts and grants) are the bedrock of an organization’s portfolio and, thus, its revenue. Prime contractors, entrusted with the responsibility of executing these agreements, often find that the key to success lies in strategic partnerships. Collaborating with other entities from around the world can complement and expand an organization’s expertise, resources, and perspectives, amplifying the potential for success and the achievement of desired development outcomes.  

Many prime contractor organizations approach partnerships as a simple contractual arrangement—they engage other organizations to provide a specific product or service with little, if any, additional partner influence or involvement. At EnCompass, we know that there is transformative power in true collaborative partnership, in which the organizations we choose to work with are essential contributors to project design and implementation and are equally committed to supporting our “team” as we work together to deliver the highest quality services in all aspects of our work. 

What is the difference between a partner and subcontractor? 

The difference is mostly philosophical. While all partners may receive a subcontract/are subcontracted to provide a product or service by their prime, not all primes view or treat their subcontractors as valued partners. EnCompass’ partnerships are founded on a deeper level of integration, collaboration, and mutual respect. Our partners are invited to contribute expertise, strategic direction, innovative or diverse approaches, and to share responsibility for the project’s success.  

What does EnCompass prioritize when forming a partnership? 

Over the last several years, EnCompass has made a concerted effort to expand our partnership base. As we continue to engage in larger and more complex projects around the world, we know it is essential to have a network of global organizations to tap into for support. As a prime contractor, we assume the majority of a project’s risks and hold ultimate accountability for ensuring success, which requires careful consideration before entering any partnership engagements. When deciding our partnership strategy, EnCompass considers/values: 

  • Cultural like-mindedness. Most donor-funded contracts have a duration of 2 to 5 years. Given the relatively short time in which we seek to achieve important development outcomes, EnCompass aims to partner with organizations that share our mission, values, and/or goals.  
  • Diverse perspectives. EnCompass recognizes that diversity is a seed for innovation, as well as an opportunity to learn new ways of working, so we partner with organizations of various sizes, sectors, and backgrounds. Given our history as a woman-owned small business (and, although no longer small, still woman-owned!), we are passionate about partnering with small, disadvantaged, woman- and/or minority-owned businesses, as well as country-based organizations. 
  • Complementary expertise. Sometimes a prime contractor’s technical or geographic expertise may not be sufficient to meet all the requirements of an opportunity of interest. In such cases, EnCompass is honest about our limitations and we warmly invite opportunities to engage organizations with more extensive or sophisticated experience in these areas. The efficacy of a contract requires the humility to know when partners are better suited to perform a certain scope of work.  
What is unique about EnCompass’ approach to partnerships? 

All EnCompass’ operations—internal and external—are grounded in Appreciative Inquiry, a strengths-based approach that focuses on successes and opportunities, rather than “fixing problems.” Tessie Catsambas, EnCompass’ CEO/CFO and a pioneer of appreciative approaches to evaluation, says that the process, “starts with asking ourselves what has worked and why.” When EnCompass engages with our partners, we start with the intention of seeing what strengths we each bring that can be built upon in our work together. For partnerships, this shift in perspective instills a hopeful mindset, enabling partners to envision and co-create a definition of success, in which each partner is encouraged to bring their best strengths and skills to bear in service of our work together. EnCompass has found that applying appreciative approaches in establishing and maintaining partnerships leads to greater collaboration and success in our projects. 

EnCompass focuses on three key practices to foster successful partnerships: 

  • Establish trust early. The partner dynamic during the proposal phase is often an indication of how the partnership will operate if/when the contract is awarded. EnCompass sets clear expectations and roles with partners early on and makes these clear to the entire team. We also ensure that all voices are invited to contribute and equally considered, no matter the size of any partner’s workshare. This creates a collaborative, rather than competitive, atmosphere among partners.  
  • Co-create solutions with your partners. The strength of a partnership comes from its collective resources, expertise, and perspectives. To invite an exchange of ideas and foster a sense of ownership and commitment to the project’s success, EnCompass ensures partners are actively involved through participatory design workshops , transparent proposal or project review meetings, and other co-creation practices..  
  • Maintain open, effective communication. Transparent communication fosters trust and mutual respect, which are foundational elements of a successful partnership; however, communication is not a one-way street. EnCompass encourages dialogue from partners through continuous feedback loops (such as recurring check-ins) that allow partners to share their experience on the proposal/project. Feedback loops ensure that your partners (and your projects) remain responsive, engaged, and adaptive. They also create space for adjustments based on evolving needs and circumstances. Finally, it is important to always explain the decisions that you, as the prime contractor, make so that partners understand any shifts in a project’s direction. 

Are you interested in partnering with EnCompass?  Find out more about our work by exploring our services and project write-ups. You can also learn about our clients and our contracting vehicles and available procurements on our website.  

If you have any questions or would like to discuss upcoming opportunities, please email our Business Development team at  

Brent Keener

Written by

Associate Director for Outreach and Partnerships

Brent Keener is EnCompass’ Associate Director for Outreach and Partnerships, within the Business Development team. With over 15 years of experience helping organizations grow, he plays a lead role in advancing EnCompass’ growth through conducting strategic planning, expanding the organization’s partnership base, and identifying and cultivating new opportunities, primarily within the Technical Assistance and Evaluation practice area. He is skilled at recognizing solutions that bridge operational gaps, increase efficiencies, and expand corporate visibility. Mr. Keener is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, having served in Botswana from 2008–2010. He holds a MA in International Development from the University of Manchester, and certificates in Design Thinking and Project Management (PMP) from IDEO U and the Project Management Institute, respectively.

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