Five Strategies for Building Effective Partnerships

Recently, I led a workshop for Milwaukee non-profit leaders on building strategic partnerships. Non-profit leaders, from across Milwaukee County, filled a conference room at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, eager to finally have space to discuss the challenges of build more sustainable partnerships.

What we discovered, in the two hours we spent together is that many of the challenges that come with building partnerships across organizations and sectors are really universal. I’ve spent nearly twenty years building many kinds of partnerships and what I know is that partnership truly is the lifeblood of any successful institution, working to create sustainable positive change within a community. The challenges created by historic inequity are just too great for one institution to solve on their own. Yet, even the most successful partnerships will meet obstacles on the road to collaboration. Building off that workshop in Milwaukee, I want to share just five of the core practices I believe are essential to clear the way to successful partnership. But first a definition: when I talk about strategic partnerships here is what I mean:

Strategic Partnerships are when multiple institutions (non-profits, foundations, city agencies, private businesses, state and federal governmental agencies, membership networks, etc.) come together to advance equity by building collective power to create system level change within communities. They do this by bringing together cross-sector resources and expertise to scale a solution that will make a measurable impact.

These types of partnerships are taking on the biggest challenges facing our cities, towns, and neighborhoods. They’re addressing homelessness, the opioid crisis, the foster care-to-prison pipeline, and un/underemployment. They are realizing that it’s simply not acceptable to work in silos when the needs of marginalized communities are so great. But let’s be honest, it is easier to just stay in your lane, focus on your mission, and do what you can for the smaller proportion of people that you can reach. Partnerships are risky. But when done well, they can be transformative.

 If you’re ready to experience bold change than here are a five core practices to clear the way for a successful strategic partnership:


Use an Equity Lens: strategic partnerships are about shifting the status quo, which by the way, many social service agencies benefit from; it keeps them in business. Strategic partnership will likely require that you change the way you do your work. You’ll need to ask what are the programmatic and system level changes: new policy, new paradigms of leadership, challenging funders to rethink their priorities, and sometimes it even means ending initiatives that may look good on paper but don’t actually work.


Resist the Culture of Competition: the non-profit industrial complex is fueled by competition. You compete for funding, you compete for results, and you compete for positioning with the field. But competition keeps us working in silos often replicating results. But to scale a solution that can reach population level means to working in partnership and finding ways to compliment each others strengthens and resources to get better results.


Dream Bigger Than Even Bigger: This is often the fun part of my job. When I’m asked to come in to facilitate the formation of a new partnership we spend lots of time imagining what change could look like and then we assess whether the vision is big enough; is it only possible with the organizations in this room working together or can you could do this on your own? If you could do it on your own, well, then we need to dream bigger. Strategic partners need to feel a sense of interdependence, like what we create together is far more transformative than what we could ever do on our own.


Strategic Partnerships Require Strategic Communication: communication can often be one of the trickiest parts of the process. It’s vital to building trust and also can make or break a partnership at any stage. Once you’ve mapped out who are your stakeholders you need to consider how to best communicate with them. A press release or a set of talking points might work for when you’re speaking to board members or public officials but it’s not the appropriate way to engage residents in the neighborhood where programming will take place or the staff who are delivering services. You need to consider the most accessible vehicle for communication given the audience, how often you will communicate and provide updates on the process, and who is the best person to deliver the message.


Lead with Trust: Lastly, partnerships must grow and develop at the speed of trust. In the Milwaukee workshop, shared several blind case studies of partnerships that I’ve worked with over the past decade. One of them involved a well-endowed organization convening other organizations in their sector. What they didn’t account for was how difficult it would be to build trust. There was a history of the convening organization co-opting the programmatic expertise of many of the organizations they were now inviting to the table. Until they addressed the harm they’d caused there was simply no way to build trust and the partnership floundered for two years. Many people in Milwaukee could relate to this story. Building trust, particularly across institutions with varied levels of power and access to resources requires we face some ugly truths about our own institutions.  It requires some honest conversation and acts of accountability for the ways that the culture of competition and scarcity has created a “winner take all” mentality within the non-profit sector. 

 Building strategic partnerships is difficult work, it’s long-term work, and it could very well change the way you think about mission and your values. But in the end, it is worth it if you’re committed to building thriving resourceful communities.

 What have been some of your greatest partnership challenges? Share in the comments.


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Three Things to Consider Before Scheduling That Staff Equity and Inclusion Training

Three Things to Consider Before Scheduling That Staff Equity and Inclusion Training

There are several reasons why an institution might decide to invest in professional development trainings on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Some organizations are motivated by a mandate from a funder, for others it’s precipitated by an internal call from staff who want to create a more inclusive culture. Hopefully, you haven’t hit a crisis point triggered by a failure of leadership to interrupt oppressive behavior in the workplace.

How Effective Meetings Maximize Engagement

How Effective Meetings Maximize Engagement

At Create Forward we specialize in designing gatherings and training the facilitators of those gatherings. We believe that every major change that we seek to create in our communities, our institutions, and in the nation begins with a gathering of concerned people. We’re constantly thinking of ways to make those gatherings more generative containers for discovering shared values, solutions to problems, and collective visions for a more equitable future.

Aspen Ideas Fest: A Place to be Invited, Bewildered, Challenged!

“We have 50 Billionaires”, my Uber driver Han proclaimed as we drove along the beautiful mountainous winding road from Snowmass to Aspen. The affluence of Aspen is the first thing you notice. Rich people do stake out the best views and Aspen is beautiful. It’s also 8000 feet above sea level and the altitude felt like a boulder pressed across my chest. I spent much of the first day both in awe of the beauty of the place while taking gulping breaths and reminding myself that I was not having a panic attack. My arrival in Aspen was overwhelming. It felt a little like an extreme sport and I wondered if I was up for it, but I didn’t come all this way not to try. Then, as I was walking through the Aspen Institute campus, looking like a rapidly welting flower, another Black woman made eye contact, smiled, stopped to say hello. In seconds, she became my impromptu orientation advisor: “Yes, it can be overwhelming at first…” She went on to tell me that she keeps coming back because as a leader she owes it to herself to be in rooms where she is challenged to think outside the box. Ok, I can totally get into that.

Piper at Aspen Ideas Fest 2018

Over the next three days, I am provoked, inspired, humbled, baffled, frustrated, challenged, and activated. I am asked to share my story or why I do what I do more times than I can count. I told the story of founding my company, Create Forward, three years ago. Proudly shared what we have accomplished in the world to date. But I’ve also been pushed to consider just how much greater the impact could be if I thought about our work in different ways. I’ve gained fresh perspectives from people I would never consider contacting if I just saw their LinkedIn profile. But more than anything I left Aspen Ideas Fest with new questions and a commitment to stay on the edge of my own knowing, where I can’t be lulled into the safe complacent place of surrounding myself with people who confirm what I already believe to be true. There are few ideas I packed up and carried with me as I left Aspen to lower altitudes. As a facilitator and experience designer, these are concepts I want to continue to explore in my work.

There is an art to the invitation. In his conversation with Erick Liu, Damian Woetzel talked about the importance of the invitation. He describes the ways his first invitation into Aspen Institute changed his life. An invitation can take so many forms. In fact, getting to the festival was a series of invitations, starting with my friend Marine Biologist Extraordinaire, Ayana Johnson recommending me for the Aspen Ideas Scholars program where I joined 300 leaders from around the world. Once I arrived, the invitations kept coming in big and small ways. I wandered into a cocktail party at the PayPal tent. I was standing outside a circle of very impressive people. Before I could turn and find a less intimidating opening around the room someone turned out and said, “come, join us.” On the walkways along campus, at the cocktail parties, and standing around after sessions, conversations happened easily. Each time I was met with genuine interest and appreciation for what I brought into the world. Each invitation has led to new connections, relationships, people who only in just meeting me became very determined to see me succeed.

A little bewilderment is a good thing. There were over 300 hundred sessions at Aspen Ideas Fest and then lots of tents with spaces to talk, think, meet, write, eat, and nap. Yes, it can be overwhelming and confusing navigating so many options but there are no bad choices here. The entire festival is a lesson in the iterative nature of meaning-making. Ideas collide from one session to the next forging new understandings and awakening dormant creative knowings. The session you attended at 9am will surely take on a whole new meaning the next day after you’ve attended a session with different presenters exploring a completely different topic.

 Be challenged, it’s exactly what you need. “Know your own mind, but don’t define your own reality”, said David Milibrand, President of the International Rescue Committee. He went on to explain the way to avoid defining your own reality is to engage with people who are not like you, who you may not agree with. Aspen Ideas Fest is a place to do just that. The people on the stage don’t have all the answers and that really isn’t the point of them being there. In engaging with their ideas and perspectives you gain something much more generative, new questions to explore.

The day after I returned from Aspen I was in a classroom inside of a maximum-security prison with the twelve incarcerated men I teach in an accredited college program. I teach a course on public speaking. As I was discussing the importance of engaging with counter arguments I shared the quote from David Milibrand that was imprinted on my brain, “Know your own mind, but don’t define your own reality.” We puzzled over this idea together in a classroom inside a prison in upstate New York. It truly is amazing where ideas can travel: from a beautiful mountainous terrain, home to a prestigious think tank, to a maximum-security prison with men preparing for their return to society, and it all begins with an invitation.

Our Founder, Piper Anderson is featured in Fast Company!

This Criminal Justice Reformer's Secrets to Tough Conversations

Piper Anderson is no stranger to difficult conversations. As an educator and cultural organizer, she’s spent over 17 years facilitating discussions about some of the most hot-button issues facing U.S. society. In 2016, for example, she gave a TED talk about Mass Story Lab, her storytelling series focused on how the U.S. criminal justice system impacts communities of color. “Yes, I’m the person who brings mass incarceration into polite dinner conversation,” she quipped. 

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