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Partnership problems and how to solve them

By Betsy Olson

Group of hands overlappingOrganizational partnerships can save money, reduce effort and benefit youth. But as anyone who has built or sustained an organizational partnership will tell you, they take time and can be thorny to navigate.

Over the last four years, I have co-facilitated a course for 4-H staff on organizational partnerships. In it, we discuss common partnership problems and solutions. Here are a few of the most common ones.

Problem #1: I have great ideas for this partner, but they only bring obstacles

After working with a school coordinator to recruit youth for a leadership program for two years with very little success and resistance to any new recruitment ideas, we discovered that they were trying to recruit youth to help in the school garden. We changed the leadership program to a nutrition teaching program that incorporated the school garden and merged our recruitment efforts. It worked. The partner became more willing to try our other ideas.

Key takeaway: Improve your relationship with your partner by learning what motivates them. Great collaborations have a mutual benefit that both partners can see. Align program goals with the needs of both partners.

Problem #2: I am required to work with this partner, but we have completely different agendas

After years of small disagreements, our local 4-H program's relationship with the fair board was tense. The board needs to make a profit and our nonprofit program didn’t seem important to them. We knew that the opinions of our local county commissioners and other government funders were very important, however. So we invited county commissioners and others to tour our fair offerings, guided by the youth themselves. The commissioners were amazed at the learning and leadership the youth displayed. The fair board members got lots of compliments from the commissioners, which improved rapport between the two groups - and made us look good, too.

Key takeaway: This is a tricky problem because without a common agenda partnerships are difficult. Finding small pieces of common ground and focusing on them can help build a better relationship.

Problem #3: My partner never responds to my emails

A partnership to deliver a robotics program for urban youth was struggling with communication. We reached out to our partner with repeated emails but didn't hear back. At our annual face-to-face meeting, we established a communication protocol. It answered these questions: How will we communicate in an emergency? How do you prefer to receive communication? How often should we check in with each other? What information do we need to share? How will we share it? After that, my partner’s communication still wasn't perfect, but it improved once we had common expectations.

Key takeaway: Youth work is a busy field. Be persistent and set up a communication plan that you both agree on.

Problem #4: I had a great program, then the partner’s staff changed and now the program isn't working

We trained 10 staff members at our partner’s site. The program was about to begin when the director left, along with five of the people we had trained. The interim director was not supportive of the program, probably because it was one more thing on a very long to-do list. Our solution: We paused the program for a semester. During that time, I had three conversations to get to know the interim director. By that winter, we were ready to start again.

Key takeaway: Partnerships are connections between people and when new people are involved the partnership changes. You may not have to start at square one to rebuild the relationship, but it is important to take some time to focus on building a relationship with that new staff member.

-- Betsy Olson, Extension educator

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