Partnerships in the social sectors

“Partnership” is the new buzz word in the social sectors. We know that more power can be harnessed and more potential can be realized when we work together. We can think about building partnerships (or undertaking business development in general) in three ways:

Organically Grown Partnerships – A somewhat passive approach that involves making the most of things that come our way. Another way of looking at these types of partnerships is “picking the low hanging fruit”. These types of partnerships aren’t ones you go after, but rather those that simply appear before you along the path. You see an opportunity and pick the fruit. This is, by far, the gentlest way of developing partnerships because you simply take advantage of an opportunity that presents itself.
Positive – Good things can come from unexpected sources. There is potential for a nourishing relationship that entails very little work.
Negative – Unfocussed and not strategic. It may not be what you need right now. The worst case scenario is that the situation is poisonous to your end goals.

Aggressively Acquired Partnerships – Pinpointing exactly who we want to go after and pursuing them, leaving all others aside. The process is active, deliberate, focussed and relentless. This approach is not typically used, or well received in the social sectors.
Positive – Goals are set and achieved.
Negative – Excellent opportunities may be lost due to a myopic approach.

Mindfully Cultivated Partnerships – This is a thoughtful combination of the above – Examine potential partnerships that come our way, carefully evaluating the possibilities while at the same time, strategically pursuing potential partners we have identified (or that have been identified for us by other sources).

I recommend the third, with a caveat and that is the focus on always being cognizant of what we are doing, constantly reflecting on if what we are pursuing will get us closer to our goals, meet our standards and are aligned with our values. This means of course:

Having clear goals for partnerships – We need to know what we want to achieve from our partnerships. Often partnerships that have a common shared goal, as opposed to simply going through all the pomp and circumstance of signing a formal Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, have significantly more longevity and vitality. If you don’t have any goals, the vitality is likely to wither after the hype of the ceremony is over.

Defining our standards – Having rigorous standards and a focus on quality are important not only for our own organizations, but also to our partnerships. The bar sits where we set it. Focussing on excellence in all that we do, including how we cultivate and nurture our partnerships, is time well spent.

Articulating our values – I would argue that if we tackle this one first, the other two will be much easier. When it comes to developing partnerships, we are more likely to have success when we have clearly articulated what is important to the organization and those who work in it.


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


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