The Meaning of Partnership

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A partnership can be defined as a collaborative relationship between organizations. The purpose of this relationship is to work toward shared goals through a division of labor that all parties agree on. Partnerships are complex vehicles for delivering practical solutions to societal and community issues. Studies of how partnerships operate indicate that organizations manage the complexity by adopting a long-term, flexible approach. During the course of their partnerships, organizations often evolve. They learn about effective management, build capacity, and gain valuable experiences. Therefore, a partnership can serve as a learning mechanism that teaches you to be better at what you do and enables you to achieve your organizational goals.

Most successful partnerships contain these key components.

If you’re considering developing a partnership, you should become familiar with what a true partnership entails. There are several key components inherent in most approaches to partnering. Examine your organization and your potential partner’s organization with these components in mind: 

  • Leadership

    Partnerships imply a shared leadership among respected individuals who are recognized and empowered by their own organizations to build consensus and resolve conflicts. However, one organization will generally take the lead on managing the process. Partners must have trust in each others’ ability to lead effectively and honestly.

    • Common Understanding

      Partners need to understand each other’s organizational framework, culture, values, and approach. Partners also need a clear understanding of individual members’ roles, responsibilities, and what the partnership’s division of labor will be.

      • Purpose

        Partnerships must be guided by a shared vision and purpose that builds trust and recognizes the value and contribution of all members. Each partner must understand and accept the importance of the agreed-upon goals. This leads to improved coordination of policies, programs, and service delivery. Shared and transparent decision-making processes are also essential as partners work towards their common purpose.

      • Culture and Values

        Shared “can-do” values, mutual understanding, and an acceptance of differences (e.g., norms, ways of working) are essential to successful partnerships. Partners need to discuss their organizational cultures to identify how to work with their strengths and weaknesses. When partners respect each other’s contributions and regard each other as equals, they can gain active involvement from organization representatives who will play a valued role in the partnership.

      • Learning and Development

        A healthy partnership promotes an atmosphere of learning. This may involve monitoring and evaluation aimed at improving members’ performance. An open mindset and the desire to invest in partners’ skills and knowledge will create opportunities to shape each other’s work and learn together. In this environment, members can reflect honestly on both successes and failures.

      • Communication

        If a partnership is going to succeed, there must be effective communication at all levels within the partnership and inside each partner organization. In addition, strong feedback loops should be outlined from the beginning of the relationship so that all stakeholders receive timely information.

      • Performance Management

        The appropriate partnership structure, management practices, and resources must be in place to achieve the intended purpose of the partnership. Members must demonstrate both accountability for their actions and ownership for delivering on the objectives and targets for which they are responsible.

Click to open interactivity Check your understanding of key partnership components.

Check your understanding of key partnership components.

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There are barriers to achieving effective partnerships.

You should also be aware of common barriers to working effectively with a potential partner. As relationships evolve, partners must work to resolve any road blocks that may arise. Typical barriers include:

  • Limited vision or failure to inspire
  • Lack of clear purpose or inconsistent understanding of purpose
  • Competition between partners for the lead or domination by one partner
  • Unequal and/or unacceptable balance of power and control
  • Lack of support from organizations with decision-making power in the partnership
  • Key stakeholders missing from the partnership
  • Lack of commitment and unwilling participants
  • Differences in philosophies or work styles
  • Inadequate understanding of roles and responsibilities
  • Hidden agendas
  • Failure to communicate
  • Failure to learn
  • Lack of evaluation or monitoring systems
  • Financial and time commitments outweigh potential benefits