The nature of partnerships

Now that we’ve provided counsel on some of the pitfalls we can encounter on our way to initiating partnerships, it’s time to provide some guidance on more promising ways to approach them. First we’ll take a look at the nature of organizational partnerships.

Institutional collaborations can be challenging. Each institution has its own culture, mission, personality, organizational structure, personnel policies, fiscal year, operational calendar, and priorities. Each organization has characteristic ways of responding to changes in external conditions. Staff turnover at any level can be a major factor. Accountability issues between organizations can be difficult to adjudicate.

Not surprisingly, the health of institutional partnerships often rests on the strength and quality of the individual working relationships between the leadership and staff of the organizations involved. If these are based on mutual respect, trust, and alignment with common goals, and individuals follow through on their commitments and communicate frequently, the partnership is off to a good start. It will become fertile ground for collaborative development of new ideas and approaches and may grow and expand into new areas.

While all strong partnerships are founded on mutually shared and recognized goals, they also need to advance important institutional goals for each of the participating organizations. Otherwise there will be little organizational back-up and buy-in for sustaining and prioritizing the collaborative work. These goals are not necessarily the same for each organization and the resources they require may not be of the same type. As David Chesebrough, says,

Partnerships require resources – time, effort, management attention, and in some cases funds. Depending on the situation, there may be more or less resources required in a partnership of each partner. These are generally balanced by the level of rewards coming back to each partner or their investment.

[Chesebrough, 1998]

In other words, unlike typical contractual fee-for-service arrangements, collaborations between non-profit organizations can include the bartering or back-and-forth exchange of a variety of asymmetrical forms of resources. The resources can be quite different in nature, e.g. money, audiences, venues, expertise of various kinds, networks and connections, materials, and institutional standings. Such a diverse array can be quite difficult to sort out, assign value to, and budget for; however, mistakes in assessing these can lead to imbalances that threaten the health of the partnership. That is why we recommend approaching the development of partnerships with some amount of rigor.

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