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The Reality Underneath the Buzz of Partnerships: The Potentials and Pitfalls of Partnering

January 11, 200611 January 2006

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Based on interviews with five American community foundations and 45 cultural organizations involved in 19 foundation-funded partnerships, this report identifies potential advantages and drawbacks of partnerships and outlines the implications for funders and grant recipients. The report indicates that both the funders and the cultural organizations believe that partnerships can build organizational capacity, expand and diversify audiences, and expand organizational networks.

However, while funders believe that partnerships can help achieve efficiency by avoiding duplication, grant recipients noted that “collaborations were time-consuming, carried hidden costs, and redirected resources in unanticipated ways.” Challenges include insufficient resources and funding, logistical difficulties, contention between partners with regards to roles, responsibilities and influence, as well as the fact that partnerships are sometimes tangential to organizations’ missions. In many cases, “partnerships’ realities did not coincide with their intended goals”.

Many organizations indicated that the creation of their partnership was tied to receiving a grant, and only a few indicated that they would divert funds from other activities to sustain partnerships. As such, many partnerships ended when the funding ended. In this context, many partnerships could not achieve longer-term goals.

The researchers uncovered evidence of an ideological commitment to partnerships among funders: “Foundations seemed to encourage, and sometimes mandate, partnerships not necessarily because partnering was the best way to achieve a particular set of objectives given a specific context and problem, but because partnering fulfilled the foundations’ view of how the social sector should operate.”

The report provides some lessons to ensure that partnerships “are a powerful tool for strengthening cultural participation and expanding audiences”. Funders and cultural organizations should recognize that partnerships are tools, not ends in themselves. The researchers suggest that partnering is warranted when “organizations have complementary missions, when they can bring different resources to the table, and when those resources are crucial for achieving the objective”.

In addition, funders and partners are encouraged “to be realistic about the time, the money, and the commitment required in light of their goals”. Substantial time and resources to plan partnerships is also important, including detailed and realistic criteria for assessing partners’ readiness. The researchers also call for more attention and research into when and how to use partnerships.

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