Organizational Development

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.

Interns Wanted: How to Build Value Into Your Internship Program

Do you remember your first internship experience? What was it like? Did it suck? Was it one of those grueling rites of passage that you finished not because you believed you’d learn something but because otherwise, you’d enter the workforce with a page full of summer fast food gigs and high school community service credits?

At Create Forward, we don’t think internships should suck. We’re more than capable of getting our own coffee and usually like to do lunch communal style. As a company committed to advancing equity and justice, exploiting the labor of college students while they take on student loan debt just to pay for the credits they get for working for us, is the kind of contradiction of values we try to avoid. Furthermore, we want to nurture young people of color who often don’t have the family financial cushion to spend a semester working for free.

Two years ago, when I first launched our internship program, I didn’t know where to begin. I put together an internship description and just sent out to various schools and networks hoping to find someone. No one applied and I couldn’t figure out why. Then a friend and fellow entrepreneur, Nia Austin-Edwards of Purpose Productions, offered some really good advice. She told me, interns want to feel like their time and effort is valued. There are lots of ways to create that sense of value you just have to use what you’ve got.

I’m not saying that our internship program is perfect. In an ideal world, we’d be able to pay our interns, compensating them their time or at least cover their transportation costs. One day we will have the resources to do that but right now we’re a small start-up and it’s just not feasible. But that doesn’t mean that an internship can’t come with other creative benefits.

So here are some ways to create an internship experience that creates value for the intrepid humans who think interning with a startup sounds like just the right kind of adventure.

Three ways to add value to your start-up’s internship program:

Extend Their Network:

Host a “lunch and learn” once or twice a month where you invite the awesome people you know to come in and share their expertise with your whole team.

If “lunch and learns” aren’t practical (like, say, because you don’t have an office) then find out who in your network they’d like to connect with a set-up them up on an informational lunch meeting with a colleague who can help advance their goals.

Provide Professional Development Benefits:

When I was thinking about the unique skills that I can share with my interns, I realized that I’m positioned to offer something that most young professionals can’t afford, leadership coaching. Over the course of a semester, Create Forward interns have the opportunity to receive around $1000 worth of coaching support. Figure out what unique skills or assets you can share with your interns. Maybe you can offer a master class on marketing or tutoring in software like Adobe InDesign. 

Another benefit we offer is a $50 PD credit. You can use this PD credit to attend a workshop or conference of your choosing. One of the most creative ways PD credits have been used was to cover the cost of a 1:1 Skype session with the owner of a community farm.

Provide an Opportunity to Shine:

An internship should be an opportunity to build your portfolio, which is why we invite all of our interns to contribute something new to the company. Once they’ve spent a few weeks getting to know the organization they can pitch a new idea, a new system or way of getting things done or even a new project that advances our mission. If it’s the right time and the right fit, we give them the green light to begin working on it. Past interns have researched story archival strategies, developed case studies, or pioneered new ways of documenting and assessing our work.

At the end of every semester long internship, we complete an exit interview with each intern. We ask them what they gained from the experience, we praise them for their offerings, but most importantly we ask for feedback on how we can improve.

The Impact

Since launching this value added internship program a year ago we’ve had three incredible cohorts of interns come through our doors. They’ve become an integral part of our community and continue to be long after they’ve completed their exit interview. Not only have we infused value into our internship program but in turn, our program design has raised the quality of the people who apply to intern with us.

But the best indication that this value-added approach is working is that half of our interns each semester are already college graduates excited about the work we’re doing and eager to learn. Which is the best part, Create Forward is a place where people know that an internship really is an opportunity to learn and grow.