Effective implementation of change requires relationships. When asked about what contributes to success, healthy community partnerships frequently highlight the quality of key relationships. Since this is true across phases of the work, any relationship considered “key” changes according to the strategy and context. Relationships that are most commonly highlighted are those between professional advocates, community residents/leaders (including youth, parents and elders), elected officials or key departmental staff in local governments or institutions. The value of relationship building is especially evident when it leads to a change of perception, trust or commitment of an effective change agent.
Building quality relationships often requires intention. Some methods for intentionally building relationships include community tours to directly experience the environment or community challenge in question and the people affected; peer-learning field trips that provide shared learning experiences and intensive time together; and joint participation in focus groups, Photovoice or another assessment that involves interpersonal exchange. Other ideas include joint travel to a professional conference; fun social opportunities related to the work or a common interest; or joint service on a work group to advance a project. Beyond methods, it is valuable for individuals to come to know, trust and value each other beyond the confines of a particular healthy community issue.
Strong relationships outside the community improve action and outcomes. Communities frequently benefit from supportive relationships outside the community. Whether it is for referral, peer learning, training or technical assistance, advocacy, consulting, coaching or fundraising, the ability to leverage resources beyond the community is an important success factor. A common and cost-efficient way for communities to reach out is by plugging into learning networks where they exist and are accessible. Effective learning networks provide venues for sharing and testing approaches across settings. In some cases, they offer leaders a broader vision of what is possible, based on successes from other communities. In other cases, they can influence the content of action plans, policy and program decisions, partnership composition, staff development, partner performance and/or resource development.
Receptivity and cultural competence are fundamental to supportive relationships. Resource providers from outside the community often need their own form of capacity building. Learning to work sensitively, respectfully and effectively across race, class and cultural difference in communities involves learning to listen, interpret, speak and write with an understanding of others’ cultural points of view. This capacity begins with awareness and often develops with training and over time. Productive learning relationships benefit greatly from it.
Intentional work with funding partners is rewarding. Many leaders go to funders only when they need money. They consider grantmaking guidelines to be opaque and assume the funder is either inaccessible or committed to their basic approach. However, funders need grantees to extend their impact, welcome thought partners to improve their practices, and often seek new models to test. Many funders have aspirations for their work, seize opportunities to learn more and see their investments in action, and frequently search for ways to contribute beyond grantmaking and appeal to their trustees. Leaders who seek creative ways to build their relationships with funders over time often find that they have access, influence and fundraising success that they did not initially expect. In the context of a network of deepening relationships, they may feel less pressure to say yes to funding opportunities or funding requests that have the potential to nudge them off course.
Fun, fulfillment and recognition help fuel ongoing commitment. Partnerships rarely have funds to pay for the contributions of all partners. People and the organizations they represent have to care about what they are doing, enjoy it and each other, and see the potential for mutual benefit in order to exercise consistent leadership over time. Therefore, it should be a fundamental practice to reflect on, recognize and reward partners who contribute.
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