The Value of Partnerships in Community Development

Times change.

We no longer live in the “command and control” era. Nor are our actions governed by feudal law. Good riddance. Great news.

Today, when it comes to quality decision-making on critical planning and economic development issues, we live in the age of partnerships.

Partnerships represent the pinnacle of leadership and collaboration in civil society. More than just a “purchase order”, true partnerships are the most difficult, rewarding, and effective form of decision-making available to us.

The issues facing communities today are many and complex, and exist at a wide range of scales. But partnerships are increasingly becoming the answer for issues that involve many stakeholders or require the application of many minds to address.

There are many types of partnerships. Public private partnerships (PPP’s or P3’s) may be the most well-known, at least in community development circles. PPP’s are the result of a contractual relationship between public agencies (say a municipal government) and private enterprise to deliver a public good. Hundreds of projects nationally are the result of PPP’s, and it’s a topic worth exploring, but I’m shedding light on a different type of partnership structure in this piece, one that doesn’t require contracts between parties and that I’ll call community partnerships to keep simple.

Community partnerships can be as diverse and varied as the communities in which they’re located and the issues they’re formed to tackle. Some may be ad hoc committees, formed to quickly respond to a discrete community issue and can then be disbanded as quickly as they form. Others form to take on larger projects, developing structures by which they operate and creating comprehensive strategies to advance their goals. But in a nutshell, a community partnership is a collaborative relationship between willing entities formed to address shared objectives.

Of the many reasons to form community partnerships, a few stand out. The first can be summed up by the African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Effective partnerships leverage the strengths of each partner and apply it strategically to the issue at hand. It might take more work, and it might take longer, but strong partnerships build the relationships, shared understanding, and collective focus to make lasting progress.

Second, there is value in working with a variety of organizations, for a couple reasons. One, because they function best when all participants actively engage, community partnerships push entities to see and understand issues from different perspectives. We learn much when actively listening, even when—especially when—opinions and ideas challenge those of our own. Beyond that, there may be new opportunities to network, build business, or learn about new tools that others offer.

Effective community partnerships rarely emerge overnight. They are the product of time and thoughtful deliberation. Those two factors bookend a series of other key elements that create effective partnerships. Among them:

  • Leadership. Community partnerships are leader’s collectives. My colleague wrote that “leadership is to communities as chocolate chips are to cookies: the more the better.” If that’s the case, then partnerships are the batter holding the chips in place.
  • Aligned Vision. Each partner must be pursuing the same essential goal. This does not mean they are committed to the same outcomes, approach, values systems and the like—in fact, disagreement about these can be healthy for the group. But it must be moving in the same general direction. One partnership consisting of one group seeking to create a community sculpture park and another hoping to win a grant for a water cistern is unlikely to work, for example.
  • Roles, Responsibilities and Accountability. Delineating clear roles for participating members and their responsibilities alleviates confusion and streamlines the group’s effectiveness. Additionally, clear roles and responsibilities create channels of accountability. When partners understand how their contributions add value to the overall effort, and can see whether others are meeting their roles, it creates opportunities to provide accountability.
  • Framework for Culture and Values. Especially important for partnerships tackling a bigger, longer term issue, developing a framework for, well, how the group works, is crucial. Roles and responsibilities can be contained here, but the framework generally covers items like meeting ground rules, decision-making, behavioral expectations, conflict resolution, and overall goals and purpose.
  • Communication. Strong and consistent feedback loops grease the skids of understanding and progress. It’s also one of the easiest things to achieve, especially today with the proliferation of smart phones and social media.
This group from Cortez, CO convened during our recent Community Builders Leadership Institute. The team consisted of the Mayor, City Manager, Economic Development Specialist, Housing Authority Executive Director, Bank President, and City Planner.

It’s one thing to understand the qualities that make up effective partnerships, but what occurs in a dysfunctional one? Make no mistake: community partnerships take work. Like a spring flower, they can wither without being tended. Barriers and pitfalls must be avoided throughout. One way to look at common pitfalls is to refer to the list above and consider the inverse. Lack of one of those key ingredients or lack of clarity can lead to difficulties. Common barriers to successful partnerships include lack of clear purpose, missing key entities, hidden agendas, failures to communicate, and domination by one party. Successful partnerships avoid these and other failures to truly thrive.

We place an especially high level of importance on community partnerships at Community Builders. For one thing, we actively seek partners for much of the work we do, whether it’s an assistance project, training session or research project. And ask any of the communities who have received technical assistance from us; the weight we place on local partnerships is a crucial aspect of readiness. Take our work in Gunnison County, Colorado as an example of an effective community partnership.

Community partnerships can be difficult to organize and sustain, but their ability to get things done cements their legacy as a vital facet of community building.

  • Leadership