Creating Community Partnerships that Work
Partnerships can be fruitful, but finding and building the right partnership can also be challenging and time-consuming. If the organization you want to work with is not on the same page, a partnership can even be counterproductive. The key to any worthwhile partnership is sharing the same vision and building trust.
Building partnerships with other groups in the community can help you achieve your goals more quickly and effectively. We spoke to Shahina Sayani, a Community Planner with the City of Toronto who shared her insider tips for making community partnerships work.
Establish a Shared Vision
Does the local community organization you want to team up with share your vision? Start by clearly articulating your vision as an organization and your vision of the project on which you want to collaborate. If you don’t have your vision quite clear in your mind, don’t hesitate to say so. Some of the most successful partnerships are built when organizations start with an idea and build a vision and a plan together.
Insider Tip: If the group you want to work with has a website or other materials, read up on the organization to see whether their focus and vision dovetails with yours. If it appears to, clearly articulate your vision for the project in your first meeting and gauge the other party’s reaction.
Trust takes time to build. In a true partnership, both parties have to be able to invest time in working together. If you can both commit sufficient resources, you’ve cleared the second hurdle.
The next part of trust is respect: all partners have to have an equal seat at the table. Yours may be a small, informal grassroots organization composed of dedicated volunteers. Now, imagine that you are entering into partnership with a local church group, a Rotary club or other established community organization. Will you have an equal say in the project on which you wish to collaborate? Partnerships that work best are built on an equal playing field.
As Shahina says:
“Successful partnerships are built on an even playing field. Be committed to creating an equitable platform for collaboration.”
Equity in the relationship percolates down to things like education, volunteerism (versus professionalism), race, age and gender. How do both parties deal with the diversity at the table? Is it valued? Are a volunteer’s in-the-trenches lived experiences considered as valuable as academic achievement or professional experience? It is imperative that everyone feels comfortable, that everyone is heard and valued, and that the process is inclusive.
Insider Tip: Trust is something that you feel, so engage your "spidey senses" as soon as you start interacting with a local community organization. Are your ideas embraced? Do you and your colleagues feel empowered and valued? Discuss amongst yourselves after the first meeting. Chances are high that your instinctive reaction is the correct one.
It goes without saying that effective partnership includes clear communication. People on all sides of the table need to know up front what expectations are regarding:
Insider Tip: Be clear about this part of your vision early on in the process. Communicate how you see roles being allocated, what your timeline is and what would constitute success for you. Also be clear about the need for regular meetings and other communication, and who is going to be the communication point person on each side!
Milestones tell you whether you and your partners are on track. Shahina makes an important point when she says:
“Clarity is critical. Make sure that everyone knows up front what expectations are on all sides.”
If you are building a flower bed, for example, milestones might be:
- Drafting the specifications of the flower bed
- Estimating costs or materials required
- Securing approval from the parks department
- Securing funding for or a donation of planting soil, plants and other materials
- Picking a date and enlisting volunteers
- Completing the flower bed
Insider Tip: Draw up a list of milestones, put them into a timeline and secure partner commitment on checking in regularly to ensure that each milestone—no matter whose responsibility it is—gets met.
Build in an exit strategy
You don’t want to get into something that you can’t get out of. If your partnership is informal, i.e. doesn’t require a contract, establish up front that you will do your best to work together, but build in an escape hatch. Consider Shahina's (funny) and valuable point:
“You wouldn’t want to be married to someone without knowing that you could get divorced. Partnerships are the same way. Ensure that you have an exit strategy.”
Insider Tip: Acknowledge the possibility that it might not work out early on in your engagement. If your partnership involves a contract, ensure that there is an exit clause built in—something along the lines of ‘either party can cancel this agreement with 14 days’ written notice’.
Did your project succeed? What did you learn from each other? Recognizing cross-learnings are both critical and exciting when you’re partnering. And coming together to celebrate your achievement is uplifting—it’s the cement that solidifies a partnership and makes future joint actions a happy prospect.
Insider Tip: Either meet with partners at project completion to celebrate your joint achievement on the spot, or meet up afterwards to evaluate how well it went, what you learned from each other and how the project could have been improved. Don’t forget to express your thanks! That can mean anything from bringing muffins to the meeting to sending a formal letter of appreciation and acknowledgement, to presenting the results of the project to your community organization partner’s members.
This resource was developed with support from
“You wouldn’t want to be married to someone without knowing that you could get divorced. Partnerships are the same way. Ensure that you have an exit strategy.”Shahina Sayani Community Planner, City of Toronto