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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