What Do We Mean When We Say Partner?

When social change efforts use the word “partner” to describe their funders, saying things like, “We are seeking a partner to help fund this effort,” what does that say about us as organizations? And what does it say about our efforts to create a community that is whole and vibrant and healthy?

Words contain so many assumptions that we rarely take time to consider. And so, when we talk about our funders as “partners,” what are we really saying – about them, and about us?

Wikipedia says a partner is…

  • A friend who shares a common interest or participates in achieving a common goal
  • A Significant other in an intimate relationship
  • A member of a partnership
  • A business partner
  • Partner (business rank), a member of a law firm or accounting firm which is formed as a partnership
  • A participant in a partner dance

Reading through Wikipedia’s links to all those entries, it is striking that even in the case of “business partner,” money is only one of many other factors, all of which have to do with alliances and mutual goals.

True Partnership
When I think of true partnership, I think of a good marriage. A strong marriage is rooted in honoring the other person despite (or even because of) their flaws. A strong marriage is about commitment to the same goals and values. In a great marriage, both parties realize that when they are together, it is as if there is a 3rd person in the room – a powerful whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Sadly, in the world of social change, this sort of partnership is rare. And I say “sadly” because if there is anything that will create change, it is the power of what we can create together that none of us can create on our own.

When Creating the Future says “Partner”
Being in start-up / scale-up mode, Creating the Future is seeking all sorts of partners for all sorts of efforts.

  • As we move our Immersion Courses into communities, we are seeking partners to not only help make those courses happen, but to help those courses have the impact they have the potential to create in those communities.
  • As we work to scale our efforts from “start-up” phase to “program development” phase, we are seeking partners to not only help make that happen, but to participate in as many ways as possible, to ensure those programs have the most impact possible.
  • As we seek to demonstrate how various components of social change work can be more effective, we are seeking partners to help make those demonstration projects happen, walking alongside us to be the future they, too, want to see in our world.

In every effort Creating the Future is initiating, partnership will determine how successful this movement for change will be. Here is how we described this approach when we announced our desire to reinvent philanthropy as Love of Humanity:

The only way to accomplish our mission is to engage our community (the whole world!) to collectively make that happen, all of us together in all kinds of ways, with all our combined talents and gifts. If the effort belongs to Creating the Future, it will fail. It must be owned by all of us.

Therefore, instead of asking people to “fund Creating the Future’s project,” we will seek Stone Soup sorts of partnerships, where everyone brings what they have, to nourish and nurture an effort that belongs to all of us together.

So then, what might that look like in action? Let’s use the issue of “bringing our immersion course to communities” as an example:

  • Perhaps partners might provide food or a venue for the course…
  • Perhaps they might provide funding to bring us to the community to teach the course…
  • Perhaps they might join the class as participants in learning how to transform their own work, to create more significant impact through that work…
  • Perhaps they might invite local Creating the Future grads to help guide their own internal transformation, to reach for more of what is possible for their own community…
  • Perhaps they might become a demonstration project partner, working side by side towards our shared  goals, and sharing what they learn along the way…
  • Perhaps they might partner with others in their community, whether simply to provide the course to the community, or to work as a cohort of funders and others who wish to bring their collective work to its highest potential for creating change…

Deep meaningful partnership. Partnerships that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Because we are exploring this as we go, we confess that we are not certain what these partnerships might look like in practice. There is, however, one thing we do know:

If we want a future where we all nourish the potential in each other, we don’t have to wait. We can be that future right now. And we can model to others both what that looks like and how it works, even as we discover that very thing ourselves.

If you have seen deep, meaningful, mutually nourishing, whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts partnerships in action, please share those stories with us. And if you have ideas for how our own partnerships can be more meaningful, walking that talk right now – please share that as well.

2 thoughts on “What Do We Mean When We Say Partner?”

  1. WOW! Just this morning, I was at a breakfast given by Great Nonprofits to learn more about their org. The host was with EventBrite since Great Nonprofits had no staff available.

    We were all engaged in small talk before the actual presentation began. Somehow we launched into a conversation about nonprofits-no surprise since everyone there was a nonprofit pro. I started to talk about silos in Chicago and the value of working together. The entire room STOPPED their conversation and started listening. A woman with the McCormick Foundation was right across from me. I said what you have so eloquently said about funders promoting collaboration, except when it came to how they funded…and the idea of funding issues. Folks were silent but electric. It was sort of amazing. This idea of true collaborative partnerships, beyond just money, resonates with folks.

    This post reminds me of that old joke about a bacon and egg breakfast-the chicken is involved, the pig is committed.

    We need more committed partners/partnerships. With the funders and other partners feeling the tug to play an equal (not superior) role with the the organization staff/volunteers. So true Hildy! Partnerships are so much more than just money..


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