From the Inside Out: Developing Partnership Capacity of an Organization

In the year 2012, partnership is not an idea that has to be sold.  Many, even most organizations operate today in some form of cooperative arrangement with others.  The lone ranger who is totally isolated from everyone and everything is increasingly the exception.   However, as many have pointed out, there is a gap between the will to partner and the ability to do that effectively.  “How do we actually do this?”  A key piece of this issue is the capacity of organizations themselves to partner with others, and this is our focus here.

Why develop collaborative capacity?

We believe that partnership and collaboration are basically good ideas… so why is it so difficult to actually do that?  Why does it not come naturally? 

Here’s the bottom line: Organizations are not designed to work together.  That is not why we build them and it is not essentially what they are for.  Organizations are created to do specific things, things we are really good at.  We cannot be really good at everything and we are not called to that.  We create organizations to accomplish visions (what we want the world to look like) through missions (what we do to get there).   We have goals, objectives, and often elaborate membership criteria.  We hold staff meetings, evaluation meetings, board meetings and planning meetings… all behind closed doors.    “We cannot do everything, but we can do this.  Praise the Lord; let’s do it!”

Here is the problem with that logic: The way we have organized ourselves does not correspond to the way the world actually works.  We’ll use the acronym “S.H.O.R.E” to look at five reasons why our organizations need to develop the capacity to collaborate with others:

  • Scale: The scale at which the problem actually works is so much greater than any single intervention by any organization.  No matter how big your organization is, it cannot be good at everything!
  • Hammer: They say, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  The same can be said of us.  If I am an educator, I try to change everything using education; a preacher, through preaching. 
  • Ostrich: When an ostrich is afraid, it will sometimes bury its head in the sand, seemingly ignoring the problem!  When we realize the complexity of our context, we focus back on what we can manage.
  • Radar: Radars will see airplanes, but not clouds, wind, rain or birds; they are programmed to alert us to some things and ignore others.  In the same way, we see needs we are there to meet, and the rest fly by us unnoticed.
  • Energy: The real world (the community, the context) will always have more total energy available to spend on resisting change than any organization will have to spend on nurturing it. 

The real world just does not work in neatly bounded categories like our organizations do.  We translate a Bible while paying little attention to leadership development, and we end up with a translation no one is reading.  We resolve denominational conflicts about reaching Africa by comity agreements (you take that tribe, we will take this tribe), and discover decades later that tribal divisions are now sanctified by denominational distinctives. 

However; there is another way that we have also learned the hard way!  We link long-term translation to near-term stories used by evangelists doing community development in partnerships, and see churches emerging worldwide.   Create a shared goal of moving north, and watch as the churches of southern Africa prepare in a sweeping move of the Holy Spirit with no respect to tribal boundaries. 

We don’t have to learn this the hard way anymore!  The way we have organized ourselves can help or hinder the work, and the focus here helps us to “keep in step” with what God is already doing!  We will look at three things that affect this capacity: the people, the organization and the social culture.

The People

We have all been to a Parent-Teacher meeting at the school our children attend.  Both sides voice ideas and concerns, make decisions… and then leave the room never to think about the matter until the next meeting!  The same thing happens with our organizations when we try to work in partnership: We just leave and get busy… and often, very little actually gets done. 

To keep that from happening, organizations can delegate a person to be the “go-between” of the partnership and the organization.  Their job is that of a liaison between the partnership and the organization.  Their job includes the following:

  • Champion the cause of partnership internally
  • Facilitate communication between the partnership and the organization
  • Represent the interests and aspirations of the organization at the partnership table
  • Awaken the organization to the interests and potential of the partnership
  • Serve as a direct, consistent contact point for a partnership facilitator
  • Track with developments that the partnership and/or organization need to be aware of

The good news here is that almost every organization has one of these people already!  Here is a profile you can use today to identify a staff member likely to be a good “go-between” to champion, link and interpret the partnership in a way that your organization can absorb and act upon:

  • Good with people and a natural networker, able to relate with empathy
  • Able to keep lots of “balls in the air” and does not panic if one hits the ground
  • Not on either extreme of “big picture visionary” or “micro-manager”
  • Articulate, curious and tactful, though not always time conscious
  • Already has “friends” and “contacts” for the need of the moment
  • Stores everything (literally) on a smartphone/iPad/notebook, which they always have with them
  • Can handle abstraction well, and is very adaptable; rarely has a ‘normal’ day
  • Can predict conflict and can figure out how to de-fuse it before it happens
  • Characteristically has trouble identifying what it is exactly that s/he does around here
  • Objective, maintaining neutrality and focus where most people chose sides
  • Intuitive learner, constantly jotting down little notes and flashes of insight
  • Secure in purpose and identity

So, yes, they are probably already fully engaged with life in your organization; and no, there is no perfect match.  It will likely be necessary to redefine their role if they are to play out this “go-between” role linking your organization with what else God is doing around you.    In short, this role connects you and gives you options you never had! 

Given that you probably already know the person who would be ideal for this role in your group, let’s look now at what an organization can do to more effectively leverage this kind of person.

The Organization

Organizations are here to stay.  However, our forms of organization continue to unfold.  We are constantly innovating in the way we organize ourselves to get things done, and partnership reflects that.  Organizations that are designed to partner more effectively will be the best positioned to take advantage of the next level of engagement with social problems.  As both donors and agencies become weary of measuring outputs with little change in outcomes, partnership is our response to the big picture where the problems actually originate.   That is where investment in the future is headed and those who organize for this purpose early will have the first-mover advantage.

So what does “good partnership material” look like in an organization?  How can we recognize it in others and build it for ourselves?  Here are some key factors that you can use today to begin thinking about your organization and its partners:

  • Well-connected internally with healthy communication and teamwork
  • Clear sense of identity and core competencies
  • Sees the big picture and constantly refines that in dialogue with others
  • Uses technology effectively to connect people with people and people with information
  • Able to handle conflict and move beyond it
  • Able to absorb change and disruptive information about reality
  • Has a budget line item for collaborative activities
  • Structures the intention to collaborate with a “go-between” person
  • Has a tool to assess desirable qualities in a potential partner
  • Maintains a database of contacts with other groups in the area
  • Leads the ‘learning curve’ when it comes to innovation in the region

Much like the personal level here, there is no perfect match.  The need of the hour is to identify what we are doing that makes partnership more effective, and nurture those qualities.  The organizations which position themselves in this way will lead the jump from conversions measured as outputs to the presence of God’s Kingdom in the world measured in outcomes.  Granted that both the people and organizations need to work together to partner effectively, society impacts them both.  Let’s look at this briefly.

The Society

We often expect that collectivist cultures will partner more naturally than individualist cultures.  It makes sense that in cultures with a very tight sense of “us”, partnership would be more natural.  However; this is not always the case, and this impacts the way both people and organizations think about partnership.

There are certain conditions in which every culture will “work together” with anyone else, for example under a shared threat.  However, this type of partnership is not a matter of culture; what culture we are is irrelevant when we are faced with the choice to die or work together.  There are cultural characteristics that help to stabilize a partnership, and you can use these today to begin thinking about how your culture affects your partnership:

  • Long-term orientation: More likely to prioritize a big long term win over a small short term loss
  • Future orientation: More likely to make decisions based on potential than precedent
  • Worldview: More likely to see the world as complex, interdependent and dynamic than to demand that the world be simple, bounded and stable
  • Risk sensitivity: Able to manage risk as opposed to running from it
  • Responsibility: Able to locate responsibility for a problem on the inside of the group rather than outsourcing every problem to a scapegoat.
  • Restoration: Both shame and guilt cultures have the means to restore a fallen member, but cultures vary in their willingness to extend that restoration.
  • Partnership requires this ability.
  • Accountability: In cultures where society negotiates morality, what is unknown is amoral… and this quickly gags a partnership.
  • Boundaries: Societies with elaborate rules on what makes a person “us” versus “not us” is likely to have a difficult time sustaining partnership.
  • Leadership: An authoritarian leader who cannot share power internally cannot share power externally either.  Partnership will make more sense to cultures where power is accountable.

As always, there is no utopian society this side of heaven.  Every culture’s greatest flaw is that it is a standard unto itself, accountable to none; yesterday’s solutions applied unilaterally to today’s problems.  It is difficult to be humble when expressing one’s culture—culture is a vehicle for self-interest every bit as much as an organization is, and partnership interferes with that drive in both cases.  However; those who overcome find the world alive with potential for real transformation, and that is what the Kingdom of God is about!


We need to move beyond dependency-based language when we talk about partnership because partnership is the solution to a problem that no organization really has.  Partnership is the most appropriate response to the big picture, a reality beyond the scope of any single organization.  Partnership is only going to become relevant to us when we move away from a language of dependency (dependent, independent, interdependent) where we refer only to what we can do for each other.  As we move into a language of shared responsibility for transforming the life experience of the people we serve, a reality beyond either of us, partnership will become relevant. 

It is at this point that the capacity to collaborate will become mission-critical to our organizations.  We will find the people needed to make it work, design our organizations to be partner-ready, and challenge our cultures which tell us anything “not us” is taboo.  We will move away from a conversion theology steeped in denominational distinctives and move into a Kingdom mindset pulsing with the presence and intention of God in every sphere of life and society.  God’s Kingdom is fundamentally what God is doing, and as we consider all the facets of God’s intentions, there is room for everyone.  Our ability to partner together brings clarity to the facets of that diamond so that the glory of God can shine through!


Several Christian leaders have been asked to continue the conversation by responding to this lead article.  Read their responses and share your own thoughts:

Mark Oxbrow responds to Mark’s article

Ernie Addicott responds to Mark’s article


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