The Science of Sustainable Partnerships

In Partnerships by Lisa Selzler


I recently had the honor and pleasure of attending the 2014 Association of Partners for Public Lands (now called the Public Lands Alliance) conference in Albuquerque. More than 200 federal and state agency representatives, nonprofit friends groups, vendors, and thought leaders gathered to network, share information, reflect on the past, and envision the future of public lands management. The theme of the conference was the “Art of Partnerships.”

During one of the more packed sessions called, “New Rules of the Road: Changing Trends in Partnership Authorities,” Dan Puskar, APPL’s new, charismatic Executive Director, discussed trends in public-private partnerships. One trend is that while partnerships are a key land management strategy used by agencies, the models of such partnership models need to be negotiated. There is no one size fits all in partnership models.

This got me thinking: on the heels of one of the toughest years in public lands management (one during which we endured sequestration and a 16-day government shutdown and with the possibility of another sequestration looming) what are agencies and their nonprofit partners doing differently to ensure that our public-private partnerships are effective and sustainable?

So I asked the group. A couple participants agreed that they are intentionally investing more in their partner relationships. But what else did we learn from 2013 and what should we do differently moving forward?

A Scientific Approach to Partnerships

I propose that it’s time to focus more on the science of building sustainable partnerships. Here are three ways you can inject a scientific approach into your resource-based partnerships:

  1. Elevate the importance of your strategic partnership(s) by including them in your strategic plan priorities.
  2. Commit to taking an honest look at the current state of your partnership – ideally, an objective analysis by a third-party – and how well it’s meeting the needs of the resource you serve.
  3. Commit to letting go of business as usual by taking an objective, systematic approach to your most important partnership(s). Ensure that your performance metrics are jointly developed and agreed to and are relevant to the current needs and goals of the resource.

While I agree with Dan that the agreements, models, and structures of partnerships will always vary, every partnership, regardless of scope and scale, can benefit from applying a deliberate, methodical approach to developing, managing, and maintaining itself for a successful and sustainable future. (See our Florida National Scenic Trail case study for an example)

The critical takeaway is that for partnerships to be a serious tool for capacity building and mission achievement, they have to be a deliberate part of your business model. In other words, what systems, structures, and skills are in place to support your partnerships? How are partnerships part of your business mindset and organizational culture?

The same way volunteerism and membership are a deliberate, systematic function of an organization, partnerships must be as well. The exciting news is there is a way to approach partnerships that is based on best practices and literature. You don’t have to make it up!

Strategic Partnerships and Strategic Planning

During one session a participant commented, “Why should we bother going through a strategic planning process when things are so uncertain like what we just saw with the government shutdown?” During times of such uncertainty, it is all the more reason to set the strategic context for the organization. (A lot of our clients are choosing shorter timelines, 2 – 3 years as opposed to 5 years, because the climate is so dynamic.)

Remember that strategic plans are not set in stone. They provide critical context for determining what your organization is and is NOT doing. They provide an opportunity for the organization as a group to think critically about how to focus and prioritize resources and programs to ensure mission achievement recognizing that you will always need to be nimble and adapt to changing circumstances. Once you have a plan, check in monthly and quarterly with your strategic goals, strategies, and objectives to gauge progress and make adjustments as needed.

Getting Started

Whether you are a human service agency working with a local coalition or a public health agency with numerous strategic partners, now is a perfect time to ask yourself:

  • How can we inject more science into our partnerships?
  • Are our partnerships reflected in our strategic goals?
  • How are we and our partner measuring the performance of our partnership?
  • How are our partnerships supported by our systems, structures, and culture?