Posted on September 20, 2015
by FeliciaOctocog

This weekend I spent a few days down in Hull, MA and took a bike ride to the Hull gut where a deep water channel between Hull and Peddocks Island connects the ocean to Hingham bay. On incoming and outgoing tides the water can be turbulent with winds and treacherous cross currents. For small boats, particularly sailboats, it is not only the water and wind conditions but it is the speeding motorboats throwing wakes that make the crossing so unpredictable and scary. If you are tacking against the wind, it can be indeed a small feat to get through.

When I used to sail a lot, we would try to time it just as the tide was turning from high to low or vice versa. At this time, the waters were more calm and predictable. To assure an uneventful crossing, we would tack outside the channel and defer to the large ferries, tankers and tugs that share this narrow half a mile wide waterway.

As I sat and watched this action, it made me think that this was a nice metaphor for the tricky waters one has to navigate when forming partnerships (or considering mergers). When two partners decide to work together, the waters indeed can get turbulent, tricky, and unpredictable. When you find yourself in a bad, ineffective and unbalanced partnership you can get caught in many waves and cross currents making forward progress difficult if not impossible to manage.

If you are a small organization (a non-profit in my case), you must form partnerships because you simply do not have the funds to be expert in everything. If you try to do everything yourself, you run a high risk of defocusing your organization off its mission and moving too far afield from its core competencies which can cause inefficiencies and sacrifice quality and outcomes.   However, by not addressing certain root causes of a problem, can also negatively impact outcomes. This is where a great partnership can help. As an example, our non-profit LEAP for Education, Inc., entered into a partnership with Children’s Friend and Family Services to provide mental health services for our college bound youth. With years of experience we found many of our youth underperformed in college due to mental health issues in addition to academic and financial. Mental health is not our core competency. Should we hire a therapist to come part time or just partner with an organization who specializes in this area. The answer was easy – partner.

I recently read an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review quarterly journal that put forth six essential elements of a successful partnership. A partnership should:

  1. Reform ineffective and/or inefficient systems – needed to build scale or solve problems we cannot tackle
  2. Align with and advances the missions of ALL partners
  3. Foster an entrepreneurial approach to problem-solving –
  4. Leverage strengths specific to engaged parties
  5. Focus on building stakeholder empowerment
  6. Commit to the attainment of visible, measurable results

When meeting with CFFS, we had to be sure that our partnership would fit within their core competency, match their mission, could solve mutual problems, leveraged strengths of both parties and result in measurable results. This blog does not allow enough space to go into a lot of the detail of this partnership and, now in year 3, is still a work in progress but improving.

Other partnerships have not fared so well. When one party does not view the partnership as mission critical or fails to fulfill its role in the partnership, or the partnership fails to result in the positive outcomes envisioned at the outset, one or more of these six pillars collapsed (or were never there to begin with).

Salem, MA has many committed non-profit organizations that are operating in overlapping spaces, each with a unique expertise. In youth serving organizations these can include expertise in mental health (such as CFFS), leadership development, academics, college access, recreation, older youth, younger youth, etc. We have to learn to partner better to leverage each other’s strengths.

LEAP has very effective partnerships with the public schools, Salem State University, the Workforce Investment Board, House of the Seven Gables, and Salem Sound Coastwatch to name a few. Often these partnerships begin with a grant which helps to form the structure of the partnership. The grant narrative requires you to spell out the roles of each partner. But that is the easy part. The lead partner must be an effective program manager and each of the partners, playing strong supporting roles.   With common missions, defined outcomes and a real problem to solve or opportunity to grab on to, partnerships will be able to navigate through those nasty cross currents, domineering oil tankers and changing conditions to become more effective and efficient agents of change.

P.S. Small confession – I got the idea for the metaphor from the Social Innovation article.  They used a river metaphor – I think mine is better 🙂