By Jocelyne Daw
Everyone talks about partnership. But talking about partnerships isn’t the same as doing it. Genuine partnership is hard, especially when it requires working across sectors and systems. Ineffective partnership can be wasteful and challenge traditional power dynamics. It can be regarded more as a charming concept than as a legitimate practice to improve outcomes. Partnering isn’t the clear answer to every problem. Partnerships must add value and create positive outcomes. To be effective, partnering must create a whole that is greater than the sum of the individual parts. So what does it take to build deep and meaningful partnerships that will drive system-wide change?
Check-in Diagnostic Tool
A recent Lankelly Chase research study identified nine specific conditions as the foundation for effective partnerships. The conditions are adaptive and interdependent, evolving as people, relationships, and priorities change. The nine-point list was designed as a check-in diagnostic tool - to be used before beginning a new partnership and referred to regularly to help a partnership thrive.
1. Impact must trump organization’s needs: Focusing on outcomes for the community and people must eclipse the boundaries and needs of individual organizations.
2.Citizen/client needs are the center of the collaboration: The client is placed at the center of the partnership’s decisions and approaches. Citizens, stakeholders and beneficiaries provide input where appropriate. As the saying goes: “It can’t be about us without us.”
3.Issue acknowledged as systemic and requiring collaboration: The issue being addressed by the partners must have a sense of urgency. There is recognition that multiple organizations must to work together to jointly address the problem.
4.Grounded in place, but open to new approaches: Partners must respect and harness the assets of their partners AND be willing to try new things. Everyone must adapt and adjust as lessons are learned and new approaches are proven worthwhile.
5.Trust partners and be willing to adapt to one another’s values: Trust, openness, mutualbenefit, and a willingness to embrace diverse thinking builds supportive relationships that can deliver results. While there might be a shared purpose, individual goals are acknowledged and supported. Acceptance of each other’s value (and values) creates the conditions necessary for effectiveness.
6.Strengths based on assets of people and place: Taking a strength-based approach allows a partnership to build on the positive capacities and capabilities of individuals, organizations, and the community. Applying this thinking — to both the system and the people being helped — builds from a strong foundation.
7.Distributed, collaborative leadership that is convening and enabling, with no egos: A collaborative leadership approach guides the collective action. No one organization or person can “own” the leadership. Leading from behind and building collective leadership recognizes complex issues require different types of leadership at the different stages of collaborative action.
8.Risk embracing where it is safe to learn and adapt: Trying new approaches and taking calculated risks is all part of transforming community challenges. An ability to learn (ideally quickly), adapt, and try again is critical. This approach must be undertaken in a way supports individual and collective resilience.
9.Use collaboration as a platform to innovate: Collaboration at its best enables social innovation. Social innovations are new solutions (products, services, models, markets, processes, etc.) that meet a social need more effectively than existing solutions. These solutions lead to new or improved capabilities and relationships, with a better use of assets and resources.
From Silos to Boundary Spanning
Partnerships provide a unique opportunity to step back from a narrow way of thinking about the role of government, non-profit groups, and business community engagement. They recognize the interconnectedness of various factors and stakeholders, as well as the need for new paradigms to address complex social issues.
Today, no single organization or sector has the capacity and resources to address our significant social and environmental issues. Solving social challenges using the same approach will not net us the solutions that are critical to our shared future.
System-change partnerships must cut across organizational, sector, and even disciplinary boundaries. New approaches to working together, securing resources and shifting social power structures are critical if they are to be effective. Cross-sector partnerships will be key to positively reshaping our cities and societies. Ensuring these nine conditions are met before and during a new partnership will help drive more effective and impactful collaboration.