Collaborating / Finance / Workplace

Collaborating 101 – Inter-Organizational Partnerships

In addition to being a community coordinator and a magazine publisher, I also do financial social work. (Yes, I’m busy, but oh-so-well-rounded.) I recently took on a position as a financial coach, operating out of a county multi-service center, with about 10 different agencies housed therein. As I went through the back-log of service referrals made to our agency, I noted that most people who came to the multi-service center were in crisis – no food in the fridge, a power shut-off notice in hand, and/or in danger of being evicted from their home. While there are organizations within the center who DO handle these situations, clients in crisis are usually not appropriate for financial coaching.

So, basically, I’m getting referrals for people who a) are not appropriate and b) if I ask them if they are interested in receiving coaching anyway, either refuse point blank, or don’t show up for their appointment. On top of this, the coaching program is funded by a county grant, so we’ve promised to provide a certain amount of service. I seriously need a new referral stream.

At this point then, I consider establishing partnerships. If the agencies in my service center see clients who are not appropriate for me, then I need to look to other agencies for referrals. According to Alter (in Patti, 2009), setting up this kind of ad hoc relationship is one of the most basic partnerships an organization can establish, simply to fulfill obligational needs. These are distinct from more complex and integrated partnerships, that can go all the way to an organizational merger. Here’s the skinny, as outlined by Alter, on how to set them up:

  1. Have resources of your own to bring to the table. In my case, it’s financial coaching – helping people achieve their own financial goals, such as setting up a bank account and getting direct deposit for their pay checks, rebuilding their credit, saving for a car, home or education, or some other goal.
  2. Be willing to take some risk. There’s no room here for the Lone Ranger, do-it-myself mentality. Relying upon others inherently involves giving up a modicum of control, but in return, there are potentially better outcomes.
  3. Have a general intra- and inter-organizational capacity, working well with others within and without the agency. Playing well with others starts at home.
Find Your Partners
  1. Establish a common ground through negotiation and conflict resolution. This takes some investigative work and serious listening. I need to hear what the other organization’s strengths and weaknesses are and then evaluate if I can complement their services, or not.
  2. Develop a common conceptual framework. If others are going to refer clients to me, they need to know the characteristics of a good candidate. We also need to have a shared understanding of how clients should be treated, and how our organizations and staff treat each other.
  3. Establish trust – expressed through intention, competence, perspective. Doing your homework can really help – if you understand the organization and the challenges it faces before going in for the big meeting, and have detailed points that will show benefit for the partner, they’ll be much more willing to work with you. However, nothing beats consistent responsiveness over time. You reply to emails in a timely manner, you follow through with promises, etc.
  1. Establish effective governance and work processes. Last year, I laid some fantastic ground work for an inter-organizational partnership. Unfortunately, the actual referral processes in place were less than stellar and it fizzled out a few months later. Having manager and staff buy-in is important, as well as clarity in the details of how the relationship and each party’s role will be carried out.
  2. Move the partnership toward becoming a learning community, continually refining and improving service. Few things are initially created perfect. When dealing with relationships, there is a lot of room for growth. Have expectations and strive to continually improve. But, be patient with mistakes as the processes and relationships are ironed out along the way.

Referenced from:
Alter, C.F. (2009). Building community partnerships and networks. In R.J. Patti (Ed.), The handbook of human services management, 2nd ed (pp. 435-454). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

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