AM I SMARTER THAN A 7-OR 8-YEAR OLD?!
When my kids were seven and eight-years old, I wanted to share with them my passion for community organizing and partnership building. But how to explain a decade of my work in a way that had meaning for them? I decided to explain them in the context of (their dreaded!) family chores like raking leaves or washing the car. I asked them to think about how much more we were able to accomplish by working together as a family of four, than as one person with one rake or one sponge. After we accomplish our tasks and leaves were bagged and cars were dry and shiny on the driveway, I asked them how they felt about what we had accomplished. Was it more fun working with others than by yourself (fun splash fights were duly noted)? Did we do a better job with more hands on?
This simple concept is true in just about every collaborative endeauvor, but especially so in the mental health and art education spaces that are the heart and soul of CREATE; partnerships are most successful when they work toward shared goals. Being a strong community partner is an essential role for every community-based nonprofit.
SHARE A COMMON VISION
A shared vision will drive collaboration. Think about your most successful partnerships. Ask yourself, what drives those successful relationships? Do your mission, values and goals align, both short and long-term? Whether you are working to increase access to mental health services, help struggling students with language and literacy skills or mentor young artists, your partners need to share the same vision as you.
Ensure you have a broad-based, inclusive partnership. Partnerships must authentically represent the community you serve or your impact will be diminished. Decisions should be made, especially regarding issues specific to traditionally marginalized constituencies, with inclusion from voices from within those communities. You can create all the content in the world but if you do not engage target audiences in ways that are meaningful and impactful to them and their families, your partnership has squandered valuable opportunities to help transform communities.
CREATE works with diverse and non-traditional partners across our mental health services and art education programs, including: Community Bridges, Generation Hope, Shepherd’s Table, A Wider Circle, Montgomery County Public Schools, Chevy Chase Artists, Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce, and nonprofits and local businesses across the DMV.
LISTEN, LEARN, ADAPT
As empowering as a common vision is, there are going to be differences in opinion on how to achieve shared goals. That’s a good thing! Give people the chance for their differing views to be heard. Listen and try to understand different points of view. And always seek common ground.
Without exception, I have found these discussions to be the most important factor in strengthening partnerships by building trust, mutual respect and ultimately making course corrections to more efficiently direct collective resources where they will be most impactful in addressing community needs.
BUILD OWNERSHIP – SKIN IN THE GAME
All partnerships aren’t created equal but each can build and fulfill a sense of ownership for a win-win relationship. Once you and a partner(s) are fully committed, here are techniques to consider:
- Share responsibilities. Partners who are empowered to make meaningful contributions are more likely to feel a sense of ownership.
- Don’t dominate the partnership. This is especially difficult if your organization initiated the partnership, but this is important if you want to create and maintain a shared ownership.
- Ask for feedback. Regularly ask your partners for feedback on how they feel the partnership is going. Just make sure you actually use their feedback to make improvements.
- Nurture relationships. Remember, partners are people and strong relationships build strong partnerships.
All partnerships are not created equal but every partner brings unique expertise and resources to the table.
Improving the lives of people across diverse communities requires partnerships that leverage resources.
Many times the partnership involves collaboration for an event or other limited forms of engagement. While incredibly valuable, events alone are not sufficient to sustain strong partnerships. There needs to be strategic, planned allocation of time, resources and engagement for the short-and-long-term to measurably impact the economic, social and emotional well-being of community members.
CREATE’s team has found incredible value in sharing expertise and cross-training. For example, CREATE’s licensed art therapists have developed a Wellness Workshop to provide community leaders, teachers, counselors and other professionals with therapeutic techniques and tools to identify and address the emotional needs of children and teens, particularly in the classroom. With the growing mental health crisis among youth in our community, it’s essential that people working directly with youth have as many therapeutic tools as possible.
What other resources are needed to accomplish collective goals: funding, space, technical assistance, social media and volunteer/staff support? There is plenty of room within these categories for partners to leverage their resources to meet shared goals.
Evaluation plays a key role in developing and sustaining community partnerships. For busy nonprofits, taking the time to evaluate partnerships can feel overwhelming. I believe in a fluid process involving multiple checkpoints and conversations in the course of planning and executing goals. It’s a simple thing to ask a partner, is this working for you? Did you feel like your views were heard and did we capture those voices in our messaging? Was our training effective for your team? This isn’t rocket science, it just takes a sustained effort to engage and a willingness to both provide and receive feedback – and act on it when needed.
We can and do work hard to make improvements with our partner organizations. Not every effort is going to be a home run and that can be due to many factors. If someone on my team dropped the ball, I own it and we fix it. Oftentimes in longer term partnerships, there may be leadership changes which present challenges. Again, this is a good thing! Not only an opportunity for a fresh perspective but also an opportunity to evaluate how the partnership if faring. In my four years at CREATE, I can’t imagine walking away from even the most complicated partnership. Team leaders should expect that even the best laid plans need fine-tuning and course corrections as they evolve over time. When it comes down to it, partnerships are people. Real people, with good, great and bad ideas, good days and bad. Sustainability is found through constructive solutions while always, always staying true to your shared vision and goals.
Finally, each of these strategies build on themselves and in the end, partnerships are a give and take relationship where everyone should win!