The Ideal Community Partner - Part 2
Community partnerships bring resilience to our communities. Partnerships between our health organizations and organizations whose values align with our missions can bring inspiration and elevated well-being to our communities. In Part 1 of this series, I addressed how most of us— and our organizations—exist in the Remote Miss sphere. In other words, although not directly impacted, we see the devastating effects of unaddressed health needs in our communities (Social Determinants of Health or SDOH), and as health care leaders, must lead efforts and create partnerships that rise to meet these health challenges.
Organizations spend substantial time and money narrowing down all in which they hope to aspire into one directional sentence: The Mission Statement. This sentence is intended to remind organizations and individuals of who they are and what they prioritize. It is to be the lens through which the world is seen and the filter through which problems are solved. Yet in a world with so many problems surrounding us, it often feels as though we are being tossed by a storm. That which was supposed to anchor the organization can sometimes feel like it is just holding it back. Now more than ever, it remains vital to maintain focus on the purpose of anchors—they are meant to keep us upright and steady as storms threaten to disrupt our vision and our course.
Many organizations find themselves in this position as they look at their communities. The SDOH storms are raging. The perfect storm builds from the lack of access to health care. Poverty is on the starboard side while food deserts await on the port side. Health organizations look at the community to see who is doing what—or who should be involved but isn’t. They see who has a name, resources and proximity and because of that, often offer an opportunity for partnership. But that’s not enough. Though these factors are important, a key indicator for collaborative success is knowing how the desired partner is already aligning with our mission statement. Knowing this alignment is two-fold. First, it reveals whether or not the desired partner believes they have an obligation to the community. Second, it identifies points for mission creep by telegraphing if the partnering organizations are moving forward on the same objectives or not.
Let’s address mission creep. It is the Achilles’ heel for nonprofit organizations. Like the old parable of the starfish on the seashore, if we are not careful, our ability to do localized good can be snuffed out because the organization can’t save everyone (like we can’t save every stranded starfish). Mission creep is the draw to do more than is in the scope of the mission. It is not that the other work isn’t good or worthwhile. It’s that it is not within the parameters of the organization’s strengths or expertise. In other words, “it’s good, but it isn’t our good to do.” Ideally when productive partnerships are established, another set of beneficial parameters is added—more talent, resources and expertise are brought to bear. It’s important to note, however, that partnering organizations each have their own set of values and unique mission statements. As a result, the potential for mission creep waits at the door. Ensuring that the ideal community partner has demonstrated alignment will go a long way to keeping this spoiler at bay.
What does an ideal community partner bring to the table? It is easy to focus on the programming and funding aspects, but more importantly, ideal partners bring perspective, expertise, experience and alignment. They bring a unique worldview that may challenge entrenched beliefs and paradigms. They are not afraid to dissent. Dissent is a sign of mutual respect when done properly between partners. It tells the other that their opinion is valued and should be heard and considered, especially when partner opinions or methods differ. Healthy dissent is informed, uncovering blind spots and providing protection before a storm has a chance to overtake. A partner who does not have the latitude and respect to dissent is actually no partner at all.
When presented with the question, “Will dissent be permitted?” Natan Sharansky, a Ukrainian- born, Jewish human rights activist and Soviet political prisoner said, “The answer to that question will determine whether the society is a free society or a fear society.”1 This sentiment is true in our communities as well. We can encourage dialogue and intellectual curiosity as a thoroughfare to understanding. Or we can stifle it and hold certain of our entrenched positions, camouflaging the fear of being challenged on the righteousness of our stance. This thought process remains ignorant to other possibilities and perspectives...and true partnership. True ideal community partners seek to break down barriers and break others from strongholds. Ideal partners want to see neighbors live free and healthy lives. Creating space for dissent, however, reminds us that I can be a friend without agreeing with you, but I can’t be a friend without understanding you. The same applies for organizations.
The ideal community partners can be hard to come by, but they do exist. To find them requires patience and discernment. Their reputations should precede them. The fruits of their labor should beobservable. Their work should reflect their obligation to the community through sustained commitment. But remember, their commitment should align with the organization’s mission to truly make a productive, positive impact.
The ideal partners also offer wise counsel. They bring fresh, unique aspects to solving challenges. They can also bring tried-and-true ways to address obstacles. They should have a track record of not only respectful dissent but also smart strategies.
What questions can we ask organizations to determine alignment and potential partnership opportunities? Try these to get started:
Ask the potential community partner to list their top three core values. Do these core values align with one or more of the health care organization’s core values? Are any values conflicting?
Does the potential community partner have a previous relationship with the health care organization? If so, how and why (or if not, why not)?
Does the potential community partner have a history of community activity or partnership with an organization that is a peer to or like our health care organization? How would this impact our partnership?
Does the potential partner have a history of multi-year commitments? How will that play out in our partnership timeline?
Collaborative success and positive impact are important goals of community partnerships, especially when addressing the overall health and wellness of our communities. Finding an organization that is already aligned with our mission statement is just one piece of the evaluation process; however, it is a great place to start the search.