How to make your charity partnerships work

We are living in the century of the system. People’s lives are part of a complex and delicate web of actors and organisations.

Each makes a contribution to a person’s well-being.

When the system works in concert to deliver the same outcome, it can deliver social change that is beyond what any individual actor or organisation could achieve.

But the opposite also applies — if any actor or organisation is out of kilter, they will slow down and sometimes halt progress.

To play a positive part within this system, organisations with a social purpose need to work in partnership. Before embarking on any new programme, thinking collaboratively requires us to ask “Who can we work with to make this happen faster or to deliver better than we would be able to alone?” Not only is partnership often the right thing to do, there is a growing demand among commissioners and funders for partnership working.

So why is the idea of taking the plunge and embarking on a partnership one that creates a heart sink moment rather than excitement?

It is important to acknowledge that partnership working is inherently difficult. Partnership involves many personalities, different cultures and dispersed power. Many of us have scars on our backs to remind us of times when partnerships did not go according to plan.

Before taking the plunge, be realistic about what partnership working means. These five questions should help.

1. Are you partnership ready? Partnerships have a habit of showing up the cracks in your organisation. Be realistic — if you are in an organisation under pressure, you will find it difficult to deliver the clarity of thinking, openness and transparency required.

2. Have you got the right resources to support the partnership? Creating good partnerships requires investment. We often don’t credit the amount of time and emotional energy needed to create new partnerships and, as a result, pile up partnership work on top of the day job.

3. Can you give the partnership time to mature? Trusted relationships are at the heart of all good partnerships. It takes time to understand a partner’s culture, ways of working, and their particular strengths and weaknesses.

Too often, organisations enter partnerships quickly and at a scale that is overwhelming.

I have seen many partnerships formed according to the frenetic timetable of submitting a contract bid. Operating at speed can mean that the ground rules for the partnership have to be worked out in the heat of the moment which inevitably makes the search for a solution that works for all sides that bit more difficult. One solution is to spend time developing and testing scenarios that are likely to affect the partnership. This gives some time and a safe space to agree an approach and get to know one another before a problem arises.

4. Do you know what you want to get from the partnership? Partnerships require a clear strategy, for each of the individual organisations involved and for the partnership itself. This can secure a clear a purpose for the partnership and a baseline agreement about the outcomes you are working towards.

5. What type of partnership are you working towards? Is this a tactical partnership — for example, giving you access to different beneficiaries or a different geographical area? Is it strategic — does the partnership enable you to lever more resources than you would do alone? Or, is it transformational — enabling you to work together to innovate, providing a new type of service, or to influence in a way that creates major change for your beneficiaries.

Katherine Rake