The aim of this guide is to highlight issues and offer some guidance in three circumstances:
The first draft of the guide was written for people involved in local regeneration partnerships – amended for a workshop on academic partnerships. Partnership issues are fairly universal!
The issues important to you will depend on when and where you stand in relationship to the partnership, and I have tried to indicate that in the guide. The guide covers:
There is deliberately some overlap between the sections, because I think it is helpful to look at partnerships from different angles.
You may come across several different types of partnerships:
It is difficult to provide a formal definition of partnership that suits all circumstances, but the key characteristic is that the partners aim to achieve something they could not do alone, by pooling skills and other resources. To do this they need a shared vision of their goals, and a way of working together which realises this ambition. This may involve a long-term formal structure, or a shorter-term agreement.
In each situation there will be some benefits and opportunities in partnerships working – and also some barriers, and challenges in making the partnership work. For example:
This section offers models for thinking about partnerships: the ladder of participation; three different perspectives on partnership; and the idea of the life-cycle of a partnership.
In real partnerships the partners have some equality, and are collaborating to do something everyone agrees about. Unfortunately partnership has become something of a spray-on word, and you may be called a ‘partner’ but find you don’t really have much say in what is going on. Here’s some theory…
In 1969 Sherry Arnstein, writing about citizen involvement in planning in the US, described an eight-step ladder of participation. The steps relate to how much control people have in relation to the main power holders. I have altered this to five stances, and suggest that partnership occurs at the levels of deciding and acting together. In some circumstances less involvement may be appropriate – but it shouldn’t be called partnership. There’s more on this in my Guide to Effective Participation.[^1]
!(media/image1.png) !(media/image2.png) Arnstein’s original ladder, 1969. Suggests top of the ladder is best – but power-holder often keep people down. Revised version DW 1994 – horses for courses. Sometimes just consultation is appropriate – but partnership is deciding and acting together. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The model, described in more detail in the participation guide, suggests that not everyone will wish to be as involved as everyone else. It depends on how important the issue or project is to them. How involved people are may also vary over time.
If you are engaging with a partnership, where are you on the ladder – what is on offer? If you are starting a partnership, what influence are you offering others? Here’s some of the things you may hear (or say) and some questions to ask.
“We are in partnership with our community “. (Who in the community? What influence/power will they have? What help will they get?)
“We want everyone to be involved”. (Does everyone want to/need to be involved? Perhaps some people want more involvement than others).
“We want one or two representatives”. (Why not use other ways to help other people be involved.)
“We don’t have time to involve more people”. (Why not have a planning weekend or other event with a facilitator).
“We really value volunteers”. (Why don’t you give them more help and do things in ways they can understand?)
I find it helpful to use a ‘three-bubble’ diagram to look at partnerships through three different perspectives:
Looking at partnerships like this helps emphasise that we need all three elements. People and a structure can end up as a talking shop if they don’t have projects, a plan and some resources. People with great ideas and funding need to get organised. And it is no good having great plans, funds and a constitution if you don’t have people with the necessary skills and confidence.
Partnerships need partners – and people with some shared gaols and values. As we’ll see from the issues discussed below, partnerships are about relationships, and need trust in order to work. See the discussions of these issues at the end of the guide.
Partnerships are best seen as processes to build relationships and get things done – not just formal structures. There will be different challenges at different times in the life of a partnership, whether you are starting or involved in the partnership, or getting engaged from outside.
At the outset, it is important to reflect on the benefits and some of the barriers – see above.
Here are four key stages in the life of a partnership. There is a longer discussion on the Ourpartnership web site[^2] based on phases of connecting, contracting, conflict, collaborating, and closing. See also The Guide to Development Trusts and Partnerships[^3] for the process of setting up a formal partnership.
Here are some reality checks to help you decide how much involvement in a partnership you are being offered – or want. There are also some tips on engaging with partnerships, and for building partnerships.
Here are some of the key issues and challenges for partnerships, identified in the workshops. There is a longer A-Z at the Partnerships Online site[^4]
Accountability means knowing who is answerable to whom - often difficult in a partnership where paid staff have different employers, and volunteers a range of allegiances. To clarify accountability in practice consider: Who can stop someone doing something? Whose permission is needed for someone to act? Who pays them? Think of accountability through a process of community involvement as well as representation, and in relation to specific projects as much as structures.
The partnership must be adding some value to what is happening already – or there isn’t much point in setting it up (see benefits and opportunities above). Partnerships can outstay their initial purpose, in which case it may be time to plan an exit. (See the lifecycle above).
We are all confident and capable in some circumstances – at home, with friends, at work. However, new settings can challenge anyone’s confidence… so make sure new partners are welcome, introduced to the way the partnership works, and given training and support where needed. Expect the same if you are engaging with a partnership. Confidence can be undermined by the use of jargon, and a failure to understand different communication styles. Some people love paperwork, others prefer face-to-face explanations. Email can be a blessing for fast communication – but for others technology can sap rather than build confidence. Respect differences.
Control in partnerships tends to lie with those who have the money, skills and administration — however well intentioned they may be in seeking to involve others. For that reason partnerships formed around existing organisations may seem very unequal to other participants. Ways around this include:
At the end of the day partnerships are about delivering projects or activities, which benefit those involved, or others. It is tempting to try and jump straight to the action – however, recognise that work is needed to get agreement on what needs to be done, and how to do it. See Lifecycle of a partnership.
Conflicts can arise in partnerships because people are looking for different things, and may not understand each other’s hopes and expectations. That’s one reason why it is important to see partnership as a process of creating a shared vision, building trust, and learning to communicate. See Lifecycle of a partnership.
If partnerships are processes, one of the main activities for those involved should be learning…. how to understand and engage with others, how to deal with new challenges. Reflect on whether the way the partnership operates helps everyone concerned learn and develop new skills and ideas. Is it all formal committees and paperwork, or are there more creative sessions and opportunities to work with others? Some formal training is also likely to be necessary.
Partnerships work well if those involved feel some commitment, and that comes from being involved in developing the vision, plans and projects. A sense of ‘not invented here’ kills partnerships, which is why those who ‘own’ the partnership at the outset will do well to share that stake with others.
Participation is used here to describe a process by which individuals, groups and organisations are consulted about or have the opportunity to become actively involved in a project or programme of activity. See the ladder of participation above. Partnerships require participation – but not all participation is a partnership.
Issues of power and control are central to the development of partnerships. For example:
The rhetoric of partnership can often be used to disempower people if it is used - consciously or unconsciously - to mask these fundamental questions. Partnerships should aim to increase the 'power to' of partners – their confidence and ability to participate and deliver - while avoiding imbalances of 'power over' that are unacceptable to some partners.
The conventional way to address accountability of the partnership is to elect or appoint people from different interest groups to the partnership. However, this may not be enough to ensure the involvement of wider interests, and it may lead to over-large committees or working groups. It is easy for representatives to become just tokens. In addition to appropriate representation, look for other ways to involve key interests in the work of the partnership. See the Guide to Effective Participation referred to elsewhere.
Resources are more than money. In starting or running a partnership look for other groups that may be prepared to share premises, equipment, staff, contacts and ideas if there is also something in it for them. One of the main reasons for partnerships is to reduce the need for new resources.
In forming a partnership, there may be a temptation to look for a model constitution, and to think that in agreeing membership, committees, procedures and legal formalities you have created a partnership. These arrangements may be necessary – but the precise structure should be designed to fit the purpose of the partnership. Set up some interim arrangements for decision-making while you work this out, and consider whether you need a new organisation or whether written agreements between partners will be enough.
Partnerships almost always take longer than you think – so draw up a timeline reflecting the lifecycle (see above), mark out the different tasks, see what has to happen before what, and put some dates along the line.
The heart of partnership working is building relationships and trust. That takes time and more than formal meetings. Work on projects together, however small; socialise; share ideas; be open and honest with your partners; put yourself in their shoes and try and help them achieve what they want.
Values – together with trust – are key elements in building the relationship essential for successful partnerships. Values are statements of what we consider important. Since they may be emotive, political, and difficult to express, they are frequently hidden. However it is difficult to understand each other or reach agreement if we are unclear about values. In groups where there may be underlying differences of values it is often most productive to concentrate first on what there is in common by discussing outcomes — what you would like to happen at the end of the day — and how you can get there.
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[^1]: Guide to Effective Participation available at
[^2]: The Ourpartnership includes a longer discussion of partnership
[^3]: The Guide to Development Trusts and Partnerships.
[^4]: A-Z of partnerships and networks.