The Reality underneath the Buzz of Partnerships

By Ostrower, Francie | Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Reality underneath the Buzz of Partnerships


Ostrower, Francie, Stanford Social Innovation Review


The potentials and pitfalls of partnering

"THERE WAS THE MONEY, AND I DON'T DISMISS it. ... I don't need partnership funds. I need $50,000 to address our needs," said the director of a performing arts organization. His organization had partnered with other performing arts groups because a community foundation had required collaboration to receive a grant. "I'm not sure the partnership paradigm works the way we all individually need," he continued bluntly. "We don't have the same needs. ... None of us are really satisfied with the results. Maybe we should go to [the foundation] and say, 'We know you like partnerships, but here are our needs and they may be different."'

When studying partnerships promoted by a group of foundations to broaden, deepen, and diversify cultural participation in local communities, we repeatedly came across cases in which the partnerships' realities did not coincide with their intended goals. The above example is one of the most dramatic, but it illustrates a common theme: For foundations that funded these grantees, partnerships seemed a powerful way to achieve cultural-participation goals. Yet the intended goals often were not achieved, and some of the partnerships' most significant benefits were unanticipated. Why? Steven Kerr's seminal paper, "On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B," provides an important due. Kerr drew attention to a common irony in organizational life: the tendency for organizations to reward behaviors unrelated or even antithetical to the goals managers hope to achieve.1 This sort of goal displacement - where means become ends - occurs in all organizations, including nonprofits and foundations. Grantmakers who promote partnerships may be particularly prone to "Kerr's folly." Unwittingly, the funders we studied had come to see partnering - which is no more than a method - as an end in itself. In doing so, they were hardly unique. There is a tendency in the philanthropic world to assume that collaboration has intrinsic value and effectiveness, and to expect partnership to serve as a solution, often to problems that have not even been well defined.2

Partnering has become increasingly fashionable among grantmakers. In a recent study of how foundations define and approach effectiveness, the Urban Institute surveyed 1,192 grantmakers. Sixty-nine percent reported they actively encouraged collaboration among grantees. Forty-two percent of these said they sometimes required partnering as a condition for funding.

At first blush, the way foundations speak of partnership makes it seem as if they are hardheaded instrumentalists interested in efficiency and rationality. But on second glance, one can also see that their passion for collaboration often continues unabated even when they have evidence that partnering has not produced the outcomes they desired. My purpose here is not to criticize partnering, but to plead for greater realism about partnering's benefits and limitations. We must cease invoking partnering as a panacea and begin to treat it simply as one method among many for achieving a foundation's or a nonprofit's goals.

A Study of Partnering

In 1998, the Wallace Foundation launched an initiative, Community Partnerships for Cultural Participation (CPCP), to encourage community foundations to expand audience-building programs and provide direct support for local cultural organizations and artists. CPCP funds were distributed in two steps: Wallace first gave money to 10 community foundations, which in turn made grants to local nonprofits. The foundations funded 38 distinct partnerships between cultural organizations as part of the CPCP initiative.

The Wallace Foundation also commissioned the Urban Institute to evaluate CPCP. One part of this evaluation consisted of documenting, in 2001, the fortunes of half (19) of the partnerships between cultural organizations funded by five different community foundations.3 All five encouraged partnerships and three required them.

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