RFPs for improving public health and social conditions are loaded with references to ‘coalitions,’ ‘partnerships,’ and other forms of interorganizational collaboration – often as preconditions to either submitting a proposal or in carrying-out the work. Francie Ostrower pleads for ‘greater realism about partnering’s benefits and limitations’ in Stanford Social Innovation Review [free article].
She reports the results of a program designed to encourage partnerships among community-based arts and humanities organizations to help them expand their audiences. As a condition for funding, local foundations either required or strongly encouraged CBO applicants to form partnerships. In interviews with staff from both the foundations and grantees, the investigators found that both groups recognized the positive benefits of partnerships: build organizational capacity, horizons and growth; expand and diversify audiences; and expand organizational networks (build social capital). However, they diverged as funders argued that partnerships increase efficiency by discouraging duplication and encouraging the pooling of resources. Grant recipients, on the other hand, noted the time-consuming and costly work of making the partnerships work (relationship building across organizations, logistical management such as scheduling and attending meetings); asymmetrical responsibilities among partner organizations where large ones spread responsibilities across multiple staff while smaller ones have to concentrate them on just one or two people; and the perceived inequities about roles, responsibilities and influence that lead to contention between partners.
Her analysis of the data pins the underlying problem as this:
Foundations seemed to encourage, and sometimes mandate, partnerships not necessarily because partnering was the best way to achieve a particular set of objectives, given a specific context and problem, but because partnering fulfilled the foundations’ view of how the social sector should operate. Evidence of an ideological commitment to partnerships surfaced time and again in our interviews.
The outcome of this type of commitment is that grantees focus more on making the partnership work [ie., behaving as they are ‘suppose to’] than on achieving the original objectives. Indeed, many grantees said that they would not have formed a partnership had it not been a requirement for obtaining the grant. My favorite quote: …policymakers continue to heed a ‘siren call of coordination remedies’ because of coordination’s value as a symbol that ‘epitomizes widely shared social values or rationality, comprehensiveness, and efficiency.’
The two major conclusions of the study are:
- Assuming that a particular goal warrants forming a partnership…provide planning grants to give potential partners the time and incentive to explore more fully the feasibility and the costs of partnering.
- To ensure the success of a partnership, foundations must be willing to cover administrative costs and, in the case of large projects, they may need to consider funding a partnership manager.
While the study focused on local foundations and CBOs engaged in a specific task, the contours of the problem are embodied in many other contexts. The bottom-line is not to allow the indulgence of ideological biases to take focus, time and energy away from the purpose of the work.