The Partnership Journey: Establishing and Working in Partnership

“We need to do it to survive.” “Our funding bodies expect it.” “We can do things better or do more if we work with other organisations.”

There are many reasons why organisations choose to or feel the pressure to partner. Deciding to partner, partnering and sustaining the partnership can be thought of as a journey with rewards and challenges along the way. Here is a summary of key steps on the journey and actions to increase the rewards and effectively manage the challenges of partnerships.

Travel Items Accessories Preparation List Concept

Before you start: Where do you want to go and with whom?

Clarify why your organisation wants to develop a partnership, and what level of partnership, such as do you want to partner for a joint program or project, form an alliance/consortium for a joint tender, or partner for collective impact? Be clear about what you want a partnership to achieve and what you can bring to it.

Identify potential partners, build a relationship, and find out about their motives for partnering and what they can bring. Identify your common ground and co-create your partnership by establishing a preliminary plan for the partnership.

“Partnering is about co-design and co-ownership of solutions.”

Cloete: 2014: 68[1]

Starting the Journey: Establishing the partnership

If you’ve got this far you have decided that you have common aims for partnering, you know enough about each other to think that you can work together, and have some ideas about what you will do together and how.

Now its time to do some serious work: Clearly define your shared vision for the partnership and for the work you will do, articulate the values that will guide your work, define the work to be done by the partnership and develop a plan including the resources required to implement it, and how you will measure success, and develop a governance structure for the relationship.

Tip Number 1: Clarify what is important to each of the partners and your expectations of each other.

The first ‘leg’ of the journey: Early in the partnership

The first weeks and months of a partnership establish patterns for the rest of the journey. So consciously establish positive patterns. Have channels for communication and communicate regularly, honestly and respectfully; document – develop an agreement/memorandum of understanding (MOU) for your partnership; develop guidelines about key areas of your joint work together; integrate the work of the partnership into the work of each partner agency, for example, include partnership responsibilities in plans, policies, job descriptions, and staff supervision; undertake team development and relationship building activities for partner members; and provide skills development in partnership and the particular skills required to work in the partnership program/project.

Tip Number 2: Build accountability to and involvement of the community; as well as being the right thing to do it will create a unity of purpose and action among the partners.

 ‘Pit stops’: Regular monitoring, review and reflection

Monitor both the work of the partnership and the partnership itself – the structure and how it works. Schedule times to review and reflect and include feedback from people who use the partnership service/members of the community, staff who work in the partnership program/project and other key stakeholders, like workers from other agencies who refer to the partnership. Build on what is working well and take action to respond to what’s not working as well.

Tip Number 3: Use your agreed measures of success to monitor and evaluate the partnership work.

Continuing on the journey: Sustaining the partnership

To sustain a partnership you need to pay attention to:

The work: If the work of the partnership is rewarding because it is achieving what it set out achieve, has an impact on people’s lives and is making a positive difference, and enables workers and organisations turn their driving passions into action, people in the partnership will continue to put in effort even when there are challenges.

The partnership relationship: Continue to build the relationship between partners through clear and open communication, team building, recognition of partners in internal and external communication, such as referring to partners on your website, celebration of achievements, reflection, and positive confrontation of challenges, such as poor performance.

Tip Number 4: Create a sense of equality between the partner organisations by addressing power imbalances created by factors such as difference in size, structure and experience.

The management of the partnership program/project: A detailed program/project plan including allocation of tasks, required resources, and management and review processes will support you to effectively manage the work undertaken by the partnership, and create rewards for all involved.

The leadership and management of the partnership: The partnership governance structure and processes, including decision making and communication processes, need to be managed and reviewed through an active agreement, and self review and reflection by the partnership governance team.

Support by each of the partner organisations: An organisation will support a partnership if it sees and experiences a clear benefit for itself. So build your organisation’s capacity and culture to work in partnership and to think collaboratively, including the ability of leaders and managers to share leadership.

Like all relationships and worthwhile undertakings sustaining partnerships requires a willingness to make the partnership work and courage, patience and determination over time (Tennyson, 2011).[2]

So, whether you are considering a partnership, are well into one, or wishing there was a ‘pit stop’ ahead for you to pull over for a while, there are steps to take to plan and enjoy the journey and get you where you want to go.

A version of this article was published in Third Sector in early 2016.

Look out for the next blog in the Partnerships series on: Creating a Partnership Friendly Organisation.

[1] Cloete, E. (2014). The Western Cape Economic Development Partnership: A Collaborative Intermediary Organisation. Annual Review of Social Partnerships, 9 67-67.

[2] Tennyson, R. (2011) The Partnering Toolbook An essential guide to cross sector partnering.

Grace Leotta is an organisational community development and training consultant. She supports organisations and networks establish, manage and review partnerships and collaborative efforts, and provides training on various aspects of partnership.

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