Building partnerships in your community (and beyond)

The basic building block of civic change is a group of citizens working together. A small, committed team can do wonders. But you can’t do it all on your own. To go beyond your immediate circles, you need to build partnerships with other groups.

Partnerships unlock resources and opportunities in a number of ways. Most immediately for a citizen group, partners can help to turn out more people for your efforts—and, of course, you can help turn out your members for theirs. Partnerships can get deeper than that though, by bringing expertise, credibility, relationships, and even diverse perspectives that might ultimately transform how you do your work. Working in solidarity starts with partnerships.

Despite these advantages, partnerships can be tough. Different groups have different priorities, perspectives, and even personalities. Here are a few steps to making them work.

1. Map out the possibilities

There are more potential partners out there than you may realize. You can map out the landscape of possibilities in two different ways. The first is to start with where you’re at, and build out from there, through asset mapping. The second is to start with your goals, and work backwards from there, through power mapping. Let’s look at both.

Starting where you’re at: asset mapping

What relationships do your members currently have? Everyone has multiple affiliations—such as alumni groups, sports clubs, or professional associations—that are fertile grounds for new partnerships. Asset mapping can help to identify these relationships, along with the resources that your group might offer to potential partners.

Exercise: With your group, brainstorm a list of relationships and assets. Think through the following categories:

  • Organizational relationships: Think about political groups, professional networks, unions, religious institutions, sports clubs, neighborhood associations, personal networks, and more.
  • Significant individuals: Identify any existing relationships with elected officials, celebrities, journalists, academics, artists, entrepreneurs, or other notable individuals.
  • Skills and issue expertise: List out the issues that your group or its members know well, and the skills (e.g. in technology, design, construction, etc.) that your group has.
  • Membership base and social media reach: Take stock of who your members are, how involved they are, and what sort of reach you have through your email list and social media.
  • Physical assets and resources: Identify physical assets like meeting spaces, computers, or vehicles, as well financial assets (e.g. if your members have wealth), that your group can put to use.

Give everyone a few minutes to write these down for themselves, then share on a flip-chart or whiteboard. The ensuing discussion often sparks new ideas.

Starting with your goals: power mapping

If asset mapping is about the relationships that exist and the resources you have, then power mapping is about the relationships you need in order to win.

For example: If you’re trying to get a state senator to vote for an education bill, then you need to know where groups like teachers’ unions and chambers of commerce stand, as well as how much influence they have over the senator. This means that your power map will look quite different depending on what you’re trying to achieve and who your target is.

Exercise: Draw up a big grid with two axes. From left to right is “opposes us” to “supports us” on this particular issue; from bottom to top is “less influence” to “more influence” over this particular decision-maker. (See below.)

Put your target decision-maker at the top, but placed along the left-right axes based on whether they’re leaning your way or not. Now start mapping other groups on the grid.

Power Map Template

Want to learn more? Organizing for Action’s manual on Building Strategic Issue Campaigns has a section on power mapping.

Bringing them together

Both of these exercises offer half the picture: where you’re at, and where you’re going. You open up more possibilities by looking at the question from both sides separately.

Look for connections across the two maps. Where do you have access on the asset map that you might use to influence the target on the power map? You should also look at the relationships of the asset map alone: what relationships or assets are we not using at all? Could we be doing more with those?

You can conclude your mapping by identifying specific partnerships you want to build.

Pro tip: Don’t limit yourself to familiar partners. By broadening your network, you make it harder for elected officials to ignore your concerns. Look through recent articles or spend an hour googling for potential partners, then add them to your maps. Also, make sure you’re attending events where you might meet members of other groups.

2. Assign a relationship owner

Partnerships always start with individual relationships. Organizations come together when people come together. So once you have a sense of the partnerships you want to build, decide who will make the outreach.

It can be tempting to have group leaders manage partnerships directly. After all, they’re probably the group’s best representatives. However, partnerships take time, which many group leaders don’t have. Instead, consider putting one member in charge of each relationship. With enough partnerships, they can work together on a team/committee and even “hand off” relationships between members, as needed.

3. Build the relationship

Partnerships take work, whether you’re starting from scratch or have an existing relationship. Either way, build the partnership by building mutual understanding and trust.

Do whatever research you can before the outreach. Your goal of this research, and any initial meeting, is to answer a few questions about a potential partner:

  • What are their goals? How do they overlap (or, at times, conflict) with yours?
  • What are their capacities and constraints? In other words: what do they bring to the table, and what do they need? How does that compare to your own group’s capacities and constraints?
  • Who do they represent? Understanding the group’s base (i.e. who they’re accountable to) and its history is key to understanding where they’re coming from.

The potential partner may want to know similar things about your group, too! Be ready to share in the initial meeting. A good rule of thumb is to balance the conversation 50-50: if you’re talking too much, then you’re not learning enough about them; but if you’re talking too little, then you’re not sharing enough.

Look for easy ways to work together at the beginning. This helps the groups get to know one another and build trust. For example, you could start by agreeing to share one another’s action alerts and event invitations. Consider having a member from another group address your members at the next meeting. You could also sign on to a joint letter to an elected official.

Build toward deeper partnership and greater solidarity. A partnership is underdeveloped if it gets stuck at the transactional level—i.e. the “I’ll invite my people to your event, and you invite yours to mine” level. Partnerships can be transformational if you let them.

A few options for going deeper: co-organized or co-sponsored events, which can draw larger audiences and higher-profile figures; joint political actions; public coalitions that take on a joint brand in advocating for something; coalition meetings with elected officials; or even mergers of two groups (probably the most involved partnership you could have). In building those new partnerships, be ready for a different set of expectations about how you’ll work together.

Partnerships will whither on the vine if they aren’t nurtured. But give them the right care, and you will see them truly blossom.

Want to go deeper? Find more resources on partnerships at Kansas University’s Community Tool Box.


Photo: Dave Algoso. #NoBanNoWall protest, New York City. (CC BY 4.0)

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