#105 May/Jun 1999

Building Effective Partnerships: The Process and Structure of Collaboration

The widespread pursuit of partnerships and collaborative relationships is one of the most significant trends in community organizing and development in the 1990s. Whether it’s collaboration among local institutions or […]

The widespread pursuit of partnerships and collaborative relationships is one of the most significant trends in community organizing and development in the 1990s. Whether it’s collaboration among local institutions or efforts to bring together diverse groups of neighborhood residents, community organizations throughout the United States are recognizing the importance of partnerships for leveraging resources, building power, strengthening the democratic process, and achieving meaningful neighborhood change.

Within the community organizing and development arenas, discussions about partnership building typically focus on determining which residents or institutions should be included in the partnership and how to get these partners on board. However, bringing partners to the table is only the first step in the collaborative process. Equally important is how the partnership will be structured once it is formed.

Structure can have a profound impact on a partnership’s success. Community-building organizations often believe that in order to create an inclusive, democratic partnership, formal structure should be kept to a minimum. As a result, they tend to use open and flexible processes rather than developing explicit and enforceable rules and guidelines for interaction between the partners.

This tendency toward structurelessness contributes to many problems that frequently plague community-based partnerships: difficulties attracting and retaining an economically and racially diverse membership, lack of accountability among participants, dependence of the group on a small handful of core leaders, and communication problems among members.

In partnerships among diverse individuals, structureless meetings and open-ended decision-making processes tend to be dominated by a vocal minority, often leaving the rest of the group feeling marginalized or excluded. This makes it particularly difficult for structureless groups to attract and retain low-income participants. Linda Stout, author of Bridging the Class Divide, explains that “in many groups, a lack of explicit structure means that only those people who feel comfortable talking (usually people with privilege) will do so. It’s not that low-income people have nothing to say, we just feel that we don’t have a way in.”

In partnerships among organizations and institutions, lack of formal structure undermines mutual accountability and limits the potential for meaningful cooperation. Without enforceable rules of interaction, organizational partnerships often take the form of loose networks rather than functional collaborations. Turf battles, lack of trust, and competition for funding make organizations unwilling to fully commit to potentially productive partnerships unless mutual accountability is assured through some type of explicit and coherent structure.

Innovative efforts by two organizations in Portland, Oregon, demonstrate the value of formal structure in building effective partnerships. Housing Our Families (HOF), a women’s community development corporation that has used formal agreements to structure the interactions among its individual participants, offers a model for structuring discussions and decision-making – the micro-processes of intra-organizational interaction. The Outer Southeast Community Project (OSECP), a collaborative that has used a clearly defined partnership agreement to structure the relationships among its institutional members, provides a model for structuring inter-organizational collaboration.

Structuring Partnerships Among Individuals

HOF was founded in the late 1980s by a group of women determined to bring together the knowledge and experience of low-income women and the technical expertise of professional women in order to develop affordable rental housing and improve neighborhood livability. Guided by a commitment to “principled partnerships” between professionals and low-income community residents, HOF has earned local and national recognition for its effective use of partnerships, including the 1995 Rudy Bruner Award for Excellence in the Urban Environment. Much of HOF’s success has been tied to its use of explicit ground-rules to structure relationships among its participants.

HOF’s “principled partnerships” are structured by a set of agreements that guide the interactions among the organization’s diverse members during meetings of all kinds. HOF’s founders adapted these agreements from the National Congress of Neighborhood Women’s (NW) leadership support model. According to the NW handbook, while the use of formal agreements may seem restrictive to middle-class and professional women, low-income women find that it frees up their capacity to think and speak in a group setting and disrupts their patterns of being silent and withdrawn in a group of strangers.

HOF’s partnership agreements consist of a series of ground-rules for discussions and decision-making. Meeting facilitators read the ground-rules aloud at the beginning of each meeting and actively intervene to ensure the guidelines are followed. The ground-rules embody the following principles:

  • Speak from your own experience: All participants are considered experts – professional women may have specialized knowledge about housing development, but low-income women have the expertise that comes from personal experience.
  • No putdowns, blaming, judgements, or unsolicited advice: This principle creates a safe environment in which participants of all backgrounds can feel comfortable sharing ideas without fear of ridicule or criticism.
  • Go-rounds: In discussions, each participant is given an opportunity to speak in turn. Even first-time participants are strongly encouraged to give their input when their turn comes. This principle guarantees that all participants, regardless of how articulate or aggressive they are, will have an equal chance to share their views.
  • Equal time for all: Time limits are often used during go-rounds; interruptions, cross-talk, and speaking out of turn are not allowed. This principle helps keep the meeting moving forward and prevents a small minority from dominating the discussion.
  • Decisions by consensus: An initial go-round enables participants to raise questions, share general feedback, and hear each other’s concerns. During the next go-round, participants articulate their stance on the issue. This iterative process continues until consensus has been reached. This principle ensures that all participants’ perspectives are incorporated into the final decision.

This formal partnership structure creates a safe space in which participants can develop their leadership skills, their ability to define and articulate their views, and their sense of meaningful involvement in the group. For example, former board chair Alberta Simmons says that HOF’s model transformed her from a quiet listener into a confident leader: “That really empowered me, being a member of Housing Our Families. I found my self worth, you know. I found out I’m a powerful woman. I have views. I have pretty good views.” Simmons attributes HOF’s effectiveness at leadership development to its structured approach to discussions and decision-making: “Anything you do you need structure. You don’t have to be starchy, but you need a little bit.”

The structure also helps ensure that HOF’s diverse members build mutual respect for each other while learning from each other’s perspectives. According to board member Corliss McKeever, during go-rounds, participants frequently incorporate one another’s input into their own decisions: “Everyone goes around and says what they think about it, and in that process you may change your own opinion two or three times.” The process fosters consensus and creates a strong sense of group ownership over final decisions.

HOF’s commitment to process enabled the organization to achieve and maintain a high level of economic and racial diversity among its participants. The experience of having their opinions solicited and listened to in such a systematic way kept participants coming back. As HOF founder Barbara Willer explains, “When a woman comes into the process she really hears her own voice, and sometimes for the first time really feels heard Time after time, sitting in Housing Our Families meetings, I’ll just remember women saying ‘I’ve been going to meetings for many years, all my life, and I’ve never been in a meeting where I felt so included.'”

The principled partnership model provided an ideal framework during HOF’s early years for fostering a respectful, inclusive atmosphere for discussion and decision-making about the organization’s vision, its mission, and its policies. Staying true to this model has become more difficult, however, as the organization has grown and its capacity as a housing developer has increased. The everyday pace of decision-making has intensified while the issues under discussion have become increasingly technical and complex. The time-consuming process of making decisions by go-rounds and consensus is not compatible with the nature and pace of many of the decisions that HOF faces. In addition, when the issues at stake involve the technicalities of housing finance and development, it is almost impossible for all the members to meaningfully participate in decision-making on an equal basis.

Faced with these challenges, and propelled by a new generation of leaders, HOF has gradually shifted toward a more traditional style of leadership and management. While these changes have streamlined the decision-making process, many long-time members believe that the shift away from its original model has eroded the strength and vitality of HOF’s internal partnerships. These members suggest that for an organization at HOF’s stage in development, a hybrid model might be most appropriate. With the hybrid approach, the group would use the original model to make decisions having to do with the organization’s vision, goals, priorities, and policies, while small committees of knowledgeable experts would make technical decisions about matters such as financing mechanisms and construction materials.

Despite the challenges of the principled partnerships model, HOF’s experience shows that the use of explicit ground-rules for discussions and decision-making can contribute to stronger relationships among its individual members and the creation of diverse and inclusive organizations in which all members play important leadership roles.

Structuring Partnerships Among Institutions

The Outer Southeast Community Project (OSECP) was formed in 1996 when nine organizations in Portland’s outer southeast neighborhood realized that, given their limited resources, they would need to cooperate in order to tackle the many challenges facing their community. The organizations, which include community development corporations, workforce development programs, health agencies, child-care programs, and community organizing programs, developed an informal partnership to pursue collaborative strategies.

In late 1996, the group received a $1.5 million Welfare Reinvestment Grant from Oregon’s Department of Human Resources for a comprehensive package of social service and community development programs. Fearing that turf battles might undermine agencies’ collaborative efforts and that true cooperation couldn’t work without assurances of mutual accountability, the group decided to formalize their partnership.

With the help of Gwendolyn Griffith, a law professor at Willamette University and an expert on collaborative agreements, OSCEP developed a formal partnership agreement. It included the following features:

  • Clearly defined membership: Members must sign a formal statement pledging their support for certain key principles and agreeing to fulfill a specific set of commitments. For example, the agreement states that “At a minimum, Partners commit to the goal of participating 4 to 5 hours per month to accomplish the work of the OSCEP  – 2 hours to attend one monthly meeting, 1-2 hours of committee work, and 1 hour for resident recruitment.”
  • Resource sharing: Partners are encouraged to share information about funding opportunities with other members and to pursue shared fundraising strategies whenever feasible. And, the individual agencies are required to consult with each other on all significant grant applications.
  • Linked service provision: In an effort to provide more comprehensive solutions to community problems, partner organizations offering complementary services – such as housing, child care, and workforce development – are expected to develop formal linkage agreements.
  • Elimination of service duplication: In order to increase the efficiency of resource allocation, OSCEP members work as a team to identify and eliminate the duplication of services among their programs.
  • Mutual accountability: In addition to signing the collaborative agreement, partners are expected to create memos of agreement with one another to formalize their relationships. If a partner organization does not adequately meet its obligations to the collaborative, the other partners have the right to revoke its membership through a two-thirds majority vote.

The emphasis on mutual accountability and cooperation within OSCEP’s agreement has enabled the partners to pursue levels of collaboration generally unheard of among community organizations. For example, the nine partner agencies worked together to design, implement, and evaluate their $1.5 million anti-poverty initiative. The initiative provided a comprehensive array of services through a series of inter-connected programs that integrated the work of all the member agencies. In addition to the initiative’s overall collaborative nature, many of its specific programs were jointly developed and administered by two or more member agencies working in close cooperation.

When this one-time grant expired, in order to receive partial replacement funding from Multnomah County, the partners prioritized all their programs, analyzed the individual program budgets, and then decided how best to allocate their reduced resources. While many partners described this process as painful, the fact that they all participated in it demonstrated the power of OSCEP’s collaborative agreement. According to  OSCEP’s coordinator, Laura Recko, “We literally took our budgets and laid them on the table, which is something I’ve never heard of being done before. But each of us opened our books and said ‘This is where we’re spending our money.’ And agencies were realistic about what they really needed, and they cut a lot.” As a result of this process, partners were able to raise over $350,000 in program support from Multnomah County and other funding sources for FY 1998/99.

OSCEP’s experience with structured partnerships also created at least one significant problem. The flip side of a strong collaborative agreement is that it can create the perception of exclusivity. Recko explains, “Our collaborative agreementlays out in pretty clear language how we’re going to work together, and the commitment we’ve made to one another. The downside of having a structured partnership agreement is that some organizations that weren’t on board from the beginning felt excluded. We struggled with the issue of taking on new partners vs. concentrating on building a strong base with the original nine.”

In an effort to overcome the perception that OSCEP was a closed project, in 1998 the group joined with a pre-existing, loosely structured network of organizations serving outer southeast Portland. The new collaborative is now called the Outer Southeast Caring Community. Members now face the challenge of creating a new organizational structure and a collaborative agreement that incorporates several dozen organizations and philosophies. This will be especially challenging now that OSCEP’s original grant has expired. Many of the collaborative’s original members believe that their commitment to the partnership agreement was strengthened by their shared participation in the grant.

Another challenge of OSCEP’s structured partnership agreement has been the time commitment it has entailed. Several of the partner organizations, particularly those with small staffs, have been stretched thin by the administrative and team-building work of the collaborative. Furthermore, OSCEP has found that while funders promote the concept of collaboration, they rarely provide resources for the time-consuming nuts and bolts work of partnership building. As OSCEP’s Angela Jarvis Holland put it, “Funders support this model but aren’t realistic about the resources and energy necessary to make it work I don’t see any allowance made for the amount of work it entails if I want to network, if I want to get to know people, if I want to work collaboratively.”

As OSCEP’s experience suggests, collaborative agreements can strengthen mutual accountability and trust, enabling groups of organizations and institutions to maximize their resources and work together more effectively. However, such agreements require high levels of commitment in order to be effective. If organizations do not have adequate resources to enable them to engage in the partnership-building process, or if they lack strong incentives for collaboration, they will face significant challenges in creating and maintaining an effective collaborative agreement.

HOF and OSCEP’s formal partnership models offer food for thought to any organization or group interested in exploring innovative methods of partnership building. These models can make partnerships more inclusive, effective, and productive. However, they can be challenging to implement and may not be appropriate for all organizations. Further, while HOF and OSCEP’s agreements offer a useful starting point for other organizations, they should not be viewed as blueprints or templates. Partnership agreements should be carefully tailored to meet the particular character, needs, and circumstances of each organization or collaborative.
Kristina Smock is a sociology graduate student at Northwestern University. She has worked as a community organizer and as a consultant in community development and community organizing.


  • Housing Our Families: 3987 N. Mississippi Ave.; Portland, OR 97227; 503-335-0947; [email protected]
  • Outer Southeast Community Project: 6927 SE Foster Road; Portland, OR 97206; 503-772-2300; [email protected]
  • Outer Southeast Caring Community: 7211 SE 62nd Avenue; Portland, OR  97206; 503-306-5961 x224
  • National Congress of Neighborhood Women: PO Box 1073; Laurenceburg, TN 38464; 931-766-0087; [email protected]
  • Gwendolyn Griffith, consultant on collaborative agreements, professor of Law at Willamette University College of Law, and Special Tax Counsel to Spear, Hoyt, Jones, Poppe and Wolf:  541-485-5151



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