Essential Elements of Partnership Success
Partnerships form when diverse organizations work together in response to an identified need. In recent years, as the complex nature of substance abuse has gained recognition, the partnership model has been applied to a broad range of initiatives ranging from national frameworks to provincial and territorial strategies to local initiatives. By acknowledging that issues related to substance use and abuse are too complex to reside within one sector, these efforts have brought together divergent groups to focus resources, expertise and a common interest on a particular issue.
At their most effective, partnerships break down barriers between polarized sectors, facilitate the sharing of expertise, champion innovation, maximize resources, minimize duplication of services, and support an integrated approach to policy development and service delivery.
However, not all partnerships lead to success. Partnerships fail for a variety of reasons; the most common causes of partnership breakdown are:
- Inadequate consideration of the human and financial resources, time commitment and leadership required to keep the partnership alive and viable
- The view that working in partnership is something participants have been mandated to do, rather than a cause (and an outcome) participants believe in
- Waning focus and momentum
- Resistance to attempts to move the process from planning to implementation
- Member sabotage through promotion of their own organization’s priorities/agenda
By paying attention to these and other potential sources of friction, partners can take measures to prevent failure and plan for success. Regardless of the scope or complexity of the issue being addressed, certain essential elements are common to all successful partnerships:
- Champion the partnership
Some partnerships seem to form naturally without a clearly defined plan or intended outcome. These efforts may function for a period of time, but without structure, purpose and leadership, they are at risk of losing momentum and are unlikely to remain viable over the long term.
Effective partnerships are the result of the early leadership efforts of one or two individuals (or organizations) who, having identified an issue that would benefit from multistakeholder engagement, then serve as that issue’s champion or instigator. Leadership responsibilities may be transferred to other members of the partnership once the process gets underway. Nonetheless, effective partnerships require that someone take the lead in ensuring that a strong infrastructure and clear process are in place from which to proceed.
In addition to champions as leaders of the initiative, it’s also important for champions to emerge from the various partnership organizations, advocating on behalf of the partnership while participating in and contributing to the partnership process.
- Clearly define the issue and the desired outcome(s) of working together
Partnerships form in response to a presenting cause, agenda or mandate. To unify the partnership, minimize the potential for conflict and avoid misunderstanding, it’s imperative to clearly define the issue that will be addressed and the desired outcome of the partnership’s activity.
Questions to consider include:
- What’s the motivation for working together as opposed to proceeding autonomously?
- What data or other evidence supports or informs our initiative?
- What is the desired outcome(s)?
- How will success be measured and communicated?
- How will accomplishing this outcome(s) change the current landscape?
- What is the impact of the current politicaland policy context on the viability of the outcome(s) and the timeframe?
- Determine the most appropriate level of engagement
In describing how partnerships work, terms like “networking” and “collaboration” are often used interchangeably with little or conflicting understanding of their meaning. In fact, these terms describe different levels of engagement that require very different levels of commitment. Regardless of what the relationship is called, it’s crucial to establish agreement about the level of engagement and commitment required from the outset, with the understanding that the relationship may change over time. Achieving clarity with regard to this issue will help potential partners understand what is required of them—as individuals and organizations—prior to agreeing to participate. This, in turn, will help to ensure that the required levels of commitment and motivation can be sustained throughout the entire process.
The following table differentiates four levels of engagement and can help organizations determine which approach is best suited, given the purpose of the engagement:
Networking The most basic and informal way for organizations to work together.
- Minimal risk to and low investment by participating organizations
- Limited to information sharing
Example: Substance abuse counsellors and mental health specialists meet at a conference and exchange information about compassion fatigue in the workplace.
Coordinating A short-term relationship that brings partner organizations together in a limited capacity to work on a specific task.
- Organizational autonomy retained
- Some sharing of organizational resources
- Minimal risk to and low-to-medium investment by participating organizations
- Written agreement of commitments may be desirable
Example: A substance abuse organization, mental health clinic, inner-city mission and social housing agency agree to work together to sponsor a one-day workshop on compassion fatigue and burnout. In this example:
- One agency may provide space and refreshments
- A second agency may oversee registration and administrative tasks
- A third agency may provide subject-matter expertise
- A fourth agency may provide facilitation expertise
Cooperating A longer-term relationship that requires a higher level of commitment from partner organizations.
- Some sharing of resources such as knowledge, space, staff and expertise
- Some loss of autonomy
- Written agreement may be necessary
- Greater risk and greater investment than coordinating
Example: A local high school works with a community-based addictions facility to develop a prevention program for the school. In this example:
- Both the school and the addiction agency review the research on prevention standards
- As part of the needs analysis, the school arranges to have community consultation meetings with parents and relevant community organizations
- The school and addiction agency present a written proposal to the board of education.
Collaborating An ongoing, long-term and formalized arrangement that affects the way partner organizations do their work.
- May require giving up one area of responsibility in exchange for another
- Shared risks, resources, responsibilities and rewards
- Written agreement necessary
Example: A mental health agency and substance abuse organization each designate and train one member of their counselling staff to work together one half-day per week, offering a mobile wellness clinic to service providers at risk for compassion fatigue.
- Recruit partners
A good starting point is those potential partners who already have a history of working on the issue in question, followed by a broader search for organizations that have a current or emerging interest in the issue. The search should also extend to sectors or groups that have a history of being in conflict or competition with the other potential partners, but who nonetheless share a common interest in the presenting issue. By clarifying the issue and focusing on points of agreement and the desired outcome of working together, the partnership can be strengthened by this type of diversity. Including these groups from the outset may also prevent implementation obstacles down the road.
Inclusivity is key in that it enlarges the sphere of relevance, expertise and influence. However, “diversity for diversity’s sake” isn’t productive and should be avoided. Above all, the composition of the partnership needs to be intentional and purposeful.
Once member organizations are identified, it’s important to ensure that individuals recruited from these organizations have the full support of their organization at the highest possible level, thus securing their role as organizational champions.
All member-groups or individuals should offer at least two of the following characteristics:
- Expertise in the issue and/or in managing/organizing the partnership
- Human, financial and/or in-kind resources
- Available time to get the work done
- Ability to leverage broad support for the partnership and its accomplishments
- Clarify the partnership’s structure
Once the level of engagement moves beyond simple networking, it becomes important to clarify the details of the partnership’s structure. This ensures that the partnership’s original purpose and plan are realized. A Terms of Reference is a useful tool for mapping out structural considerations. Consider including:
- Roles and responsibilities: One of the greatest threats to any partnership is unclear expectations about who is doing what. Clarifying what needs to be done and who will do the work is critical to keeping members engaged in the process. Keep in mind that some of the roles and responsibilities will be focused on equipping the rest of the team for success; for example, through administrative support, facilitation or training.
- Leadership, decision making and accountability: As previously stated, partnerships are typically initiated by one or two groups (or individuals) who recognize an issue and the potential of working together. As the partnership forms, these early leaders may continue in a leadership role, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Regardless of who assumes responsibility for leadership (preferably someone who’s skilled in this area), as the partnership evolves it’s essential that leadership and decision making are managed in a way that supports accountability while nurturing flexibility and innovation.
- Procedural considerations: Partnerships form to get work done and, inevitably, this type of work involves procedure: meetings, committees, communication plans, etc. To avoid frustration, members should decide, in advance, how many meetings they’ll be required to attend, where the meetings will take place, how long they’ll last, the format of the meetings, what’s required of them between meetings, and how progress will be communicated.
- Evaluate the initiative’s process and outcome(s)
Evaluation is critical to an initiative’s success in that it measures how the partnership does its work (process) and the results of its efforts (outcome). In terms of process, this information is used to make improvements to the way the partnership functions. In terms of outcome(s), evaluation information is used to identify the initiative’s strengths and limitations, which allows the partners to make decisions about where to channel their energy and resources going forward (or, in some cases, whether to go forward at all). In both cases, by identifying and responding to process issues and tracking progress, an effective evaluation strategy can help to sustain focus and motivation for the long haul.
Perhaps most important, evaluation brings credibility to the initiative and demonstrates to prospective partners and the larger community that the partnership is committed to being effective in its efforts. For all of these reasons, the evaluation strategy and timelines for its implementation need to be determined at the very outset of the partnership.
Written by Lianne MacGregor.
Date Modified: 2011-06-01