Guest Blog – Rebecca Aird, Director Grants and Community Knowledge, Ottawa Community Foundation
In February this year, I participated in a 4-day training course by the Partnership Brokers Association. Participants included reps from post-secondary institutions, government agencies, funders, and not-forprofit organizations. To begin on a personal level, the course helped affirm my sense of the necessity and potential for more enlightened approaches to collaboration, and greater intentionality and sophistication in pursuing multi-dimensional benefits. It’s hard to say more about the course without saying a lot more. But the explicit emphasis on courage, equity, transparency, and trust was so well modeled by everyone throughout the course that it strengthened my optimism and resolve!
Over a 30 year career (environmental policy and programs, community development) I’ve led or been otherwise involved in many multi-stakeholder forums and partnership processes. Some worked beautifully, some failed miserably, most probably fell in between. Many foibles, follies and ingrained behaviours — personal and institutional — stand in the way of effective partnerships that serve the common interest. The extremely thoughtful, systematized guidance and tools provided by the Partnership Brokers Association in the four day course increases the odds of success. This includes things like reasoned assessments on whether and when to partner, explicitly surfacing both common and individual objectives, jointly setting the “operating” conditions, explicitly defining what’s in and what’s out, and planning in advance for when and how to exit.
Community Foundations in Canada range greatly in size and funding capacity, but collectively hold over $5 billion in assets. All are locally-focused, and typically mandated to fund across pretty well the full range of issues affecting wellbeing/quality of life. So they have a rare breadth of knowledge about the communities in which they operate. This puts them in a good position to identify partnership needs and opportunities.
Moreover, most Community Foundations (CF) would certainly resonate with the now prevalent belief that success in addressing fundamental challenges and meaningful opportunities requires collaboration across organizations, and often across sectors. Many explicitly encourage collaboration through their grants programs. Some play an active role in bringing potential partners together to meet specific objectives. Increasingly, this includes partners outside the charitable sector. Some CFs also seek to manifest their own commitment to partnership through increased collaboration with other funders.
The Ottawa Community Foundation does all of the above. At the same time, like many other CFs, we have perhaps been too disposed to consider a funding relationship itself as a partnership. The Partnership Brokers Association’s conceptual clarity around what constitutes a partnership helpfully dispels this notion.
A risk that many CFs also engender in their enthusiasm to promote and support partnership is inadequate attention to a deliberate developmental approach that improves the likelihood of success. Developing better partnering skills internally will at a minimum improve our radar for the right conditions. Beyond that is the potential to directly put those skills in service of the partnerships we want to see flourish. Alternatively, knowing what it takes to succeed will increase our readiness to support partners to access the skills they need from other experts.
The stakes are pretty significant. Given a prevailing aspiration towards deep, systemic shifts to improve social, environmental, cultural and economic conditions, our sights are ultimately set on partnerships that deliver transformative change versus simply transactional or adaptive improvements. We foster that potential with every successful partnership outcome.