From my experience in urban communities, most non-profit organizations are hesitant to create partnerships, especially non-profits providing a similar service. As government funding continues to decrease for human services and communities remain in decline, I grow increasingly confident that partnerships are the key to a thriving non-profit sector.
At the Dynamic Partnerships: The Arts and Community Development workshop, Megan Whilden made great points about why the partnership between the Storefront Artist Projects and Pittsfield’s Office of Cultural Development worked so well, but I was most impacted by her assertion that partnerships should highlight already present community strengths.
Some projects do not highlight present community strengths. For example, the creation of a community mural solely to improve a space’s attraction will not empower the community for real change. The motivation of any project will be evident to community members by who is involved in the project, the project’s theme, and access to the planning. When only outsiders are engaged in the project and community members have no part of the planning process, community empowerment will not happen. Instead, the project will communicate to community members that their community is: ugly, dangerous, insufficient, etc.
The more effective and empowering project involves collectively planning and promoting a design highlighting positive community attributes. Empowerment will happen when community members are engaged, in their areas of skill, to executive the project. In order to accomplish this, partnerships with other community organizations in these projects are important: they provide both unity and positive reputation.
I believe organizational partnerships help community members to see the broader picture in their community. When organizations begin to function together towards a common goal, it becomes one community. Competition breeds distrust, and community members can sense this distrust. If organizations do not trust one another, why should community members trust organizations working on a community project? In a project, positive reputation helps community members warm to new project and unity helps them feel comfortable enough to participate.
Non-profits resisting partnership are counterproductive and hurting their constituents. The best projects are those approaching communities from a holistic perspective: just like a person, communities have multifaceted needs. Community problems are usually much more complex than projects care to address. The simple route is indeed to say that a community is not thriving because of _______ (a lack of jobs, you fill in the blank), but providing just _________ (allowing a new factory to be built in the community, a one-dimensional service) does not provide the whole answer (community members with the skills they need or remove the obstacles they have to succeed in a newly obtained job, other problems below the surface will exist). When non-profits come together, they often are able to provide a more holistic project that successfully addresses the “whole” problem.
Partnership promotes unity, positive engagement, and holistic solutions in communities. When non-profits overcome their fears of partnership and need to compete, the result will be thriving organizations and communities.