What Is The True Nature Of Partnerships?

SiG Note: A version of this post was published on Think Thrice on March 28, 2013. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author. 

The social innovation community is acutely aware that our toughest societal challenges cannot be solved in siloes. Cross-sector, cross-disciplinary collaboration is needed to tackle such complex problems.

ContentImage-18-252448-partneryogaA growing understanding of this need for deep collaboration is amplifying the urgency for individuals skilled at bridging, building and brokering partnerships.

Mary Pickering is one of these individuals. Mary is an accredited member of the Partnership Brokers Association (via PBA in London, UK) and the VP of Partnerships at Toronto Atmospheric Fund (an innovation unit embedded within the Toronto municipal government). She has and continues to broker large scale partnerships that work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Toronto (by 80% by 2050, no small task!).

I was fortunate to participate in a workshop led by Mary on partnership brokering; below are my top take-aways around contracts, money and forces.

On the exit plan // CONTRACTS ARE USEFUL FOR THE PROCESS

Drawing up a letter of intent, contract, or, in the case of a romantic partnership, a prenuptial agreement, is helpful because it forces us to go through the motions of discussing what assets exist, what our strengths are and how we can be fair with each other.

However, if the partnership gets to the point where this agreement needs to be used, it often means a deeper betrayal occurred at some point and this issue(s) needs to be resolved before the partnership can be resumed.

Predicting all possible scenarios in advance is practically impossible, but thinking through and deciding together how to address and resolve conflicts before they arise makes it possible to be logical about what is the best and most fair outcome, without emotion getting in the way.

Contracts are a useful tool in partnership as they enable parties to be up-front about expectations — particularly those to do with succession and exit planning — during the early stages of the partnership, ushering partners to together create a shared understanding and vision of what defines success.

On power imbalances // MONEY DOESN’T EQUAL SKIN IN THE GAME

Contributing money doesn’t equal true ‘buy-in’ because one’s value of money is weighted by how much money one has.

Mary explains that one of the fundamentals of true partnerships is that each party contributes, and incurs risk, by agreeing to engage. However, with agreements where power is imbalanced, such as those between investor and entrepreneur or music label and musician, it can be difficult to decipher whether an offer to engage is a transaction or a partnership. The intention of the engagement and level of commitment is the difference between a transaction (purely a business exchange, short-term in nature, and often a one-time deal) and a partnership (founded on reciprocity, cooperation and mutual growth, and often long-term).

These semantics are important because they have very different implications when things don’t go according to plan. And they never do. Simply bringing money to the table does not guarantee commitment, so being upfront about power is a step closer to neutralizing imbalances.

On nurturing relationships // FORCES ARE WORKING AGAINST THE PARTNERSHIP

Forming partnerships can be hard enough but, once formed, there are also forces working to pull them apart. Personal responsibilities, job requirements and navigating hiccups across projects all compete for our mental-bandwidth, limiting the attention we can give to nurturing partnerships. Much like an untended garden that becomes overrun with weeds over time, unmaintained partnerships can take you backwards by growing once small nuisances into much larger issues or creating strain on relationships. Partnerships, like living organisms, need ongoing TLC to thrive.

Partnerships are crucial for getting big things done. Getting smart about how we think about, participate in, see and lead partnerships will help us move the dial on some of our more intractable social problems.

For more information about the process Mary describes and how you can be trained as a certified Partnership Broker, visit the Partnership Brokers Association website or register for the upcoming Toronto Partnership Brokers Training (Oct 27-30, 2014).