February 4th, 2013

What to consider when forming a partnership

February 4th, 2013

There are many articles covering partnership development available on the internet, however few are cited with examples beyond personal experiences. This article attempts to provide a higher-level analysis of partnership development by incorporating my own experiences with that of what is represented in the literature. I believe this is important to cover because collaborative partnerships are a prominent strategy for community development in today’s modern world, and relying on merely personal experiences is often not enough for entrepreneurs or growing nonprofits. Working collaboratively across organizational, sectoral, and even national boundaries is now a popular component of organizational life. Collaborative responses to social problems are now common throughout the world (Axinn & Axinn, 1997; Hardy & Phillips, 1998; Mandell, 2001). Moreover, the cooperation between public, private, and third sector and volunteer organizations to deliver services is in increasing demand (Glaister, 1999; Hudson, Hardy, Henwood, & Wistow, 1999). Similarly, corporate demands have led to a large number of organizations being engaged in international joint ventures, strategic alliances, or other forms of inter-organizational relationships (Fryxell et al., 2002; Inkpen & Li, 1999).

There are many stages to partnership development; however, even before a partnership begins to develop, there are a number of considerations each party should be aware of— so let’s begin.


Persistence of traditional hierarchical relationships

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the partnership process is that it directly contradicts the internal hierarchical structure of the organizations involved in the partnership, and introduces a concept of equality and diplomacy across members. Individuals who have become accustomed to their organizational hierarchy often find it difficult to dissolve these titles at a partnership table. Unequal standing influences the structure of partnerships, its ability to carry out its mission, the participation of community residents, and intentions for the future of the partnership. (Shefner & Cobb, 2002).


Level of Trust

One of the most fundamental components to a successful partnership is mutual trust among those involved. As the advantages of partnerships become recognized and the top-down pressure from funding agencies intensifies, organizations are increasingly turning to partnerships. When there is a high level of trust between parties, they will be more willing to share knowledge and learn more from one another (Lai et al., 2011; Selnes & Sallis, 2003). In a study conducted on international cooperative ventures by Shenkar & Van (2011), one of the factors that precipitated a failed partnership was mistrust between partners. Organizations that take into consideration the level of trust organizations may have with one another will only serve as beneficial to the partnership process. This is because even being considerate to trust will foster a more trustworthy relationship.


Issues of territory or competition of resources

A more obvious barrier to effective partnerships is whether or not the partners involved are in competition for resources or institutional space. Individuals will naturally tend to act in the best interest of their respective organizations. Even if a partnership leads to the betterment of the service or product provided, the mere perception that the partnership may harm an organization’s situation will serve as a negative impetus to the process. Therefore, it is important to identify areas of contention that may arise due to territory or resources so as to avoid potential dissolution of the collaboration. The partnership process should always be in the spirit of mutual betterment and never in competition or danger of damaging the sustainability of any particular organization.


Initial Level of Expectation

An organization’s or individual’s history with partnerships may function as a catalyst or handicap depending on what they expect from the partnership. Recognizing the level of expectation partners hold at the onset of the partnership process could potentially alleviate negative perceptions, and provide a rationale for certain behaviour. If a partner has a history of negative partnership experiences, but has agreed nonetheless to participate in a new one, they may enter the first meeting with a negative attitude. This could potentially jeopardize the partnership process. However, if members are made aware of their partner’s history and expectations, and these  are properly communicated, then organizations could potentially avoid the pitfall of making mistaken negative associations to the partner’s position within the collaboration. Also, partners should be aware of their biases for or against partnerships and should try to enter each partnership divorced of any previous experiences, as no one partnership is the same.


Openness to Collaborative Agenda

A collaborative agenda is the process of creating goals together, rather than one organization imposing an idiosyncratic agenda on the partnership. When carried out properly, this provides organizations with a sense of ownership over the collaborative goals and provides feelings of inclusivity. In some cases, collaborative agendas are avoided because of the institutional context. In the medical field for example, collaborative agendas are rare, primarily due to fear (Mauksch et al., 2001). “Physicians fear the loss of control of time… This means lengthening the visit (Dugdale et al. 1999).” Similarly, those in academia are also known to act autonomously because they “do not see themselves as able or willing to mobilize staff from a range of departments” (Huxham & Vangen 2000). The reasons for partnerships being avoided in these cases is not due to the partnership process per se, but rather other extraneous factors imposing time constraints or other limitations. These examples highlight how a collaborative agenda can deter the initiation of a partnership process, but if this barrier is overcome, the presence of a collaborative agenda is an effective facilitation instrument. In fact, “a very large amount of leadership activity… centers on finding ways to control [the] collaborat[ive] agenda…” (ibid).


Frequency and Quality of Communication

Collaborative groups generally begin relationships with at least an agreement regarding the purpose, meaning, or reason for initiating the collaborative process (Eden & Huxham, 2001). As time progresses, there is an inevitable dialogue — formal and informal — around adjusting, adding and revising the original purpose. What is most important is not so much that a concretized final purpose is formalized, but that conversations around the general idea of the collaboration continue. Whether or not these conversations revolve around the purpose of the collaboration is also irrelevant, because it is the frequency of conversations that plays the key role in the perseverance of the partnership.

While frequency of communication is important, the actual quality of communication is also critical for the facilitation of the partnership process. As much as modern technology has facilitated communication and expanded the possibilities of engaging with others, initiating a partnership is already a convoluted undertaking. Certain correspondence (i.e. electronic mail or phone conversations) have real drawbacks in terms of effectiveness, such as lack of nonverbal cues or the intimacy of face-to-face conversation. Overly employing these lesser modes of communication can be detrimental to the partnership process. Therefore it is key to not only keep communication between partners frequent, but also to ensure there is rich, personal contact as well.


Sensitivity to needs of partnering agencies

It is important for partners, especially the initiators of the partnership process to be sensitive to the needs of others. Partners should never assume another party would react in a certain way when discussing future developments or approaches to addressing the goal of the partnership. There are many examples of these sorts of factors that may seem innocuous to one party, but more sensitive to others. Meeting arrangements is one such issue; some organizations may have difficulty attending meetings on a certain day, due to previous structural arrangements. Therefore during the partnership process, if the vast majority of meetings are being held on this day, one organization may feel excluded or unappreciated. Other sensitivities that commonly arise include organizational language or acronyms, accessibility or proximal meeting locations. These issues must be discussed at the onset of the partnership process and taken into consideration, and should be made salient throughout the lifespan of the relationship. This will show that all partners are valued and will create a fostering, inclusive environment to reach the partnership’s goals.



Before addressing the influence of leadership in the collaborative partnership process, any assumptions of the leader-follower function must be eradicated. Attempts to impose traditional hierarchical roles in partnerships will serve only to disrupt the collaborative advantage and diminish the sense of inclusion and group effort.

Leadership can and should be considered the primary mechanism for a successful partnership process (Vangen & Huxham, 2003). In this context, leaders identify the problem type, assess the extent of stakeholder agreement, and evaluate the community’s capacity for change, among many other things (Chrislip & Larson, 1994). They create a constituency for change and sustain the momentum of collaborative processes. When collaboration fails to provide action and results, it is most likely not due to a poor strategy but a lack of leadership.


Presence of a champion from both sides

A distinction between leaders and champions is important to establish, as their distinction in the partnership process is very apparent. Leadership is a fluid concept that can travel from person to person and involves influential power over a group. A champion, on the other hand, is a recognized individual with power and political influence. Examples of champions in the Canadian context would be members of parliament, general managers, presidents or directors, deputy ministers, prominent community members or established researchers, and other persons with influential roles in society. However, in the case of champions, title or rank is not as important as the social capital he or she has at his or her disposal (Coleman, 1988).

“Social capital refers to the ability of individuals to leverage influence in relationships based on the strength and closeness of these relationships, the amount of trust established between players, and the intensity of these relationships relative to their importance to each other, the institution, and the partnership. It was easy to be a champion when money was readily available, but less so when it was not. Those with higher levels of social capital navigated the lean times better.” (Eddy, 2010 p. 26).

Another important factor to the partnership process is that partners have respective champions. If only one organization has a champion at the table, the likelihood of an equitable, equal relationship between partners diminishes. These champions also provide a recognizable face to the partnership and can potentially expedite the process by creating credibility for the partnership through reputation.

This article is by no means exhaustive and should be treated as only scraping the surface of the intricacies involved in partnership development. However, I believe this article can serve as a useful starting point to help entrepreneurs and growing nonprofits appreciate the benefits, and challenges, of partnering with others.



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