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Breaking it Down: The Building Blocks of Partnerships

In our course and workshops on developing cross-sector partnerships, the Building Blocks of Partnerships is a central piece we use to guide participants through the process of building partnerships based on practitioner experience. It has proven to be a great tool to spark discussion not only about the different elements of building a partnership but about the whole process.

One of the issues most recently raised was whether one should consider this a map. The process of building partnerships is neither linear nor cookie-cutter. Organizations may follow different paths to develop their partnerships. However, based on our experiences (and the experiences of the many people we have learned from), we have identified these blocks as critical to a successful partnership.

Another issue we often discuss is where to put Trust in the diagram. We know from basically everyone we have spoken to, as well as just common sense, that trust is fundamental, but it isn’t just something you achieve and then have. Much like a “social license to operate”, it is something that must be earned and maintained by constant care. Many of the other blocks shown in the diagram are meant to help build it, retain it, and reinforce it.

Starting at the bottom of the diagram, before developing a partnership, you should really understand what needs you hope to fulfill through one. Based on that internal, Individual Needs Assessment, you can focus on what types of potential partners to look for and into what Networking opportunities to invest your time. Through this networking as well as happy accidents (e.g., sitting next to someone on an airplane), you will build the Relationships that will help you find potential partners.

Once you have identified a potential partner, you need to develop a Mutual Understanding of what you can do together based on Mutual Needs and Benefits. These will form the basis of a Strategy. People who are comfortable networking and developing partnerships may do all of this naturally as opposed to methodically.

Often, partnerships are initially based on the natural ability of two individuals to do these things intrinsically. But, based on experience, the next elements should be more methodically addressed even for them, because they include the goals and measurable objectives to be achieved through the partnership.

The next line of blocks can be considered like chapters in a partnership business plan – Roles and Responsibilities, Resources, Communications, Timetable, and Monitoring & Evaluation. And indeed, it is important that they be written up. This helps to document the intentions, expectations, build a path for implementing the partnership, and measure partnership progress and outcomes.

With these in place, one can get to work on the Activities. Maybe they are small activities at first, letting the partnership grow over time. Maybe even others are brought in or something else happens that causes the Blocks to need to be revisited. In fact, a feedback loop throughout this process is necessary for a successful partnership. Also jumping ahead or even backwards can be necessary, because of unexpected changes. The flexibility that is needed to have a truly, and successful partnership is why the Trust Factor is so critical.

The Building Blocks were initially developed for an International Skills Institute course taught by Alene Gelbard, Ph.D. and Krista Hendry, MBA, at American University’s School of International Service. Through ACCESS Partnerships, Alene and Krista now offer workshops to practitioners. If you are interested in learning more about our workshops that are based on decades of practical experience, please reach out to


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