Building community partnerships: Understand the basics

In order to serve our communities most effectively, it may be necessary to partner with other organizations from time-to-time

Michigan State University (MSU) Extension is many things to many people. It is a source of valuable environmental information for the local farmer. It is a vital food resource for those who may be on supplemental food assistance programs. It is an outlet for motivated and creative youth to experience any number of different outlets, from agriculture to home economics to robotics.

With the wide variety of services that Extension offers, it is important to remember that we can’t do it all. In order to serve our communities most effectively, it is necessary, from time to time, to partner with other organizations. This isn’t a new concept. Extension’s model, historically, has been to work in partnership with county governments to provide services, but what about partnering with a local school district? What about partnering with another non-profit organization or grassroots community organization? How does one even begin to form new partnerships?

The most effective communities understand that there may be a need for different partnerships for different tasks. The partnership with the local PTA is very helpful for providing 4-H services to children in a nearby school, but may be less helpful when a powerful ally is needed to lobby on your behalf with local elected officials. Make sure that the partnership and the focus of the task are a good match.

There are potential roadblocks in every partnership, which can be running just below the surface. There may be issues of territory, competition for scarce resources or even historical issues around race, class, gender, etc. These sound like very difficult issues that could easily derail any partnership, but they are also opportunities to build relationships and strengthen all of the organizations involved.

Where territorial issues exist, encourage the parties involved to focus on the public at large who will benefit instead of maintaining their own status. Where scarce resources are an issue, encourage partnership and discuss what each organization brings to the table and how to best use the resources that are available. Where issues exist around diversity or reaching neglected or underserved audiences, seek to establish trust.

This may mean taking time to prove your reliability or acknowledging some historical conflict and the effect it has had on a group of people. As trust is built, the partnership can begin to move forward. Keep in mind, though, that trust takes time to build and a second to wreck. Always strive to provide the very best of what you have to offer in any partnership.

Keep these basic principals in mind as you go out to serve the communities in which we live work and play. With a little patience and careful, strategic thinking, effective partnerships will help transform communities.

For more information on fostering partnerships, see:

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