Working with other organisations has increasingly become the norm in recent years. The growth of this approach has in part been a pragmatic response to dealing with complex problems with a diverse array of stakeholders. The partnership can be as simple or as complex as the project dictates. This is usually determined by the size and scope of the project and essentially comes down to the sharing of knowledge and resources for the common good.
Some funders, recognising that a partnership has many advantages, now often insist that partnership is an integral part of any project they support. This section reviews, in summary, the advantages and disadvantages of working in partnership.
The main way partnerships can benefit your project is that they will broaden its scope and reach. If organisations are involved early then a wide range of ideas and resources will be available. Indeed, the more organisations involved, the wider this range will be. If these can be properly taken into account, the scope of the project will be much greater than if it had been guided by a single organisation.
Apart from broadening scope, a successful partnership approach will also produce projects that have broad support. This in turn will enhance the chances of a project’s long-term success and sustainability, as multiple organisations may have a stake in its ongoing success.
Partnerships bring organisations together and help to build mutual understanding and respect. Organisations, and individuals within the organisations, can grow from the experiences of an effective partnership and go on to tackle other challenges with new knowledge and understanding.
Partnerships, however, are not without problems or possible drawbacks.
It is not easy to bring partnerships together. The individuals within the groups may not be ready, may not see the relevance, may be in conflict with one another, may have had negative partnership experiences in the past or may be wholly opposed to the notion of change.
Working in partnership may appear to threaten the autonomy or control that some organisations (such as your group) may already enjoy – the outcome of a partnership approach is less predictable than if a single organisation is making the decisions and compromise might be necessary. And, with more lines of communication and more people involved in decision making, the more likely the project is to hit delays.
For partnerships to work there needs to be at least a degree of trust in order to bring organisations together in the first instance.
Types of Partnership
Partnerships generally arise in two ways – structural ‘top-down’ and organic ‘bottom-up’. Most community partnerships will be 'bottom-up' but it is worth looking at both sorts.
Bottom-up partnerships arise because local organisations see the benefits of working together and work out methods for achieving this. Form follows function and the partnerships survive as long as they contribute some added value over and above the organisations working in isolation.
Top-down partnerships emerge as a result of the need to comply with a funding requirement. Many public sector bodies now require that partnerships are established. Supporting the establishment of partnerships in places where they do not currently exist may be an excellent idea, but doing so within the time-scale required of funding regimes can be problematic and can, unless great care is taken, lead to a tokenistic or contrived solution.
Partnership Success Factors
While there is no single formula that can guarantee a successful process or outcome, the following factors are generally considered to be important, if not critical:
- Added value: Achieving worthwhile things that would otherwise not happen.
- Leadership: Leadership needs to exist in some form, at individual or group level, to take a partnership forward.
- Practical realities and issues: Partnerships must have clear and practical objectives and not become bogged down in procedural matters.
- Structure: A degree of formalised structure is necessary, for example an agreed procedure for making and recording decisions.
- Communication: Keeping all partner organisations engaged and up to date with accurate information.
- Consensus building: A visioning process of some sort to help develop some common views of desirable outcomes.
- Balanced representation: No relevant organisation should be either over or under-represented and should be treated equally.
- Transparency: There should not be any ‘hidden agendas’ and there should be processes for the partnership to hold those with authority to account.
- Right to dissent/withdraw: Not all partner organisations will agree on all matters at all times. There must be the scope to allow partners to ‘agree to disagree’ or, as a last resort, to withdraw.
As you can see partnerships can mean more people involved in the project that will potentially lead to an increase in productivity, more funding streams, wider community engagement and a broader skill/ knowledge base to draw on.
This must be weighed against the difficulty of keeping multiple viewpoints focused on the project's long term vision and ensuring that the original aims and objectives are not lost amid the sound of too many competing voices.
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Working with charities