Operational Issues in Partnership: Working Groups

Author: Phill Butler | visionSynergy

This article is part of a series on major issues that leaders may encounter in the lifecycle of mission networks and partnerships. This article discusses how to organize for action and see tangible progress towards your agreed upon goals using working groups.


Operational Issues In Partnerships: Working Groups

Now that your partnership has moved into the Operation Phase, you will no doubt be focusing on how to organize for action and see tangible progress toward your agreed-upon goals in light of your partnership’s big vision. There are many different ways to structure a partnership for success, and as you begin to work in earnest on common projects and programs, there are some pitfalls to avoid.

One of the biggest problems we often encounter is a partnership Facilitator who tries to run
a partnership like an organization. Most of us don’t have a lot of experience working through consensus as a group of volunteers, so we often bring our “organizational mindset” into the mix. We try to figure out some sort of hierarchy, and ask, “Who’s the boss?” But a partnership works through dialogue, not through dictates. The partnership Facilitator or Leadership Team should not think of themselves as an executive committee, who impose their decisions on the partnership. They should serve the partnership by helping the group of volunteers stay on target and on task to accomplish what they all agreed together to do.

Whatever structure you use – from the overall organization of the partnership, to the organization of the leadership, to the organization of working groups within the partnership – it is important to remember that the form of the partnership should serve the function, and not the other way around. While some partnerships may be much more formally structured than others, structure is not a substitute for trusting relationships. Trusting relationships are the core of effective partnerships.

While there are many ways to organize groups to accomplish the work of a partnership, we
have found two types of groups that are common. These groups can go by different names, but for our purposes here, we’ll call them “Action” groups and “Administrative” groups. There are specific types of groups within each of these two broad categories.

Action Groups:

Action Groups are the “getting things done” groups. As your partnership grows, we believe it is a good practice for every partner to volunteer in at least one of these kinds of groups. We commonly see three kinds of Action Groups:

  • Working Groups are the main engine of partnership. These are the groups that are actually tasked with the specific objectives the partnership is trying to achieve. A Working Group will have a chairperson or one or two coordinators. It will draw on the resources of the wider partnership. And it will constantly share progress with the wider partnership. Working groups are often called (or made up of) Task Forces.

  • Affinity Groups are something you might see in a network or larger partnership. This type of group is basically like an information-sharing or problem-solving “think-tank.” Affinity Groups will typically form around specific areas of ministry or particular issues facing the partnership that need more research and discussion. Affinity Groups are also called Interest Groups. Sometimes, as partnerships are just forming, the specific actions the partnership wants to take require further research or definition before Working Groups can be formed. This research may fall to different Affinity Groups, which will go on to recommend that specific Working Groups be formed.

  • Infrastructure Groups serve the logistical needs of the partnership, such as planning and coordination of events, managing communication and collaboration systems, and so on. Especially when partnerships are quite large or are made up of multi-national or geographically dispersed agencies, these needs can require the work of a dedicated group.


Administrative Groups

Administrative Groups are the “keeping it together” groups. We often see two kinds:

  • Facilitation Teams or Coordination Groups are the main Leadership team for the partnership. It is their responsibility to coordinate the action of the partnership. The members of this team are chosen or affirmed by the partners or the Advisory/Steering Group. Depending on the size and complexity of the partnership, the primary leadership can fall to one person (the Facilitator) or to a team. In a healthy, active, and effective partnership, there is a dedicated Facilitator who is supported by and accountable to the partners.

  • Advisory Groups or Steering Committees are often made up of the coordinators of the different Working Groups plus the Facilitator or Facilitation team. Sometimes, there is a commitment of a certain time of service, such as a year or two years. Sometimes, depending on the country and legal situation, the Steering committee will act as a legal board. You might also have outside members of the committee to offer specific legal or financial advice. The Advisory Group keeps the Facilitation Team accountable and helps make decisions that keep the partnership running smoothly.


Partnership Facilitator Recommendations:

It goes without saying that Action Groups and Administrative Groups are necessary because a partnership with many members can’t do everything together. Organizing into groups helps to divide the tasks into manageable sizes and helps specialists to focus their resources together. As we have already said, we highly recommend that all partners volunteer to serve in at least one group, so that the time between Partnership Meetings can be as productive as possible. We also have some specific recommendations for the partnership Facilitator(s): 

  • They should not be a member of every Group
  • They should not be the Chairperson or Coordinator of any Working Group
  • They should encourage and develop strong relationships with the Coordinators of each Group
  • They should monitor, evaluate, and report on the work


Work Group Meetings:

When the volunteers for an Action Group come together, here are a few things they should do in the first meeting:

  • Have everyone introduce themselves and share contact information
  • Briefly report on their individual interests in the work of the Group
  • Identify and connect with individuals who are involved but not present
  • Identify problems/opportunities
  • Define priorities
  • Develop an Action Plan
  • Identify an initial Coordinator or Chairperson
  • Prepare a report for the Partnership
  • Pray

In subsequent meetings of the Action Group, here are a few things to consider:

  • Welcome new members to the Group, giving them time to introduce themselves
  • Ensure that new members understand the Group’s purpose and past work
  • Review previous action items
  • Report on what has been (and has not been) achieved
  • Identify new work that needs to be done
  • Set a new Action Plan (with current priorities and new priorities)

It is important that Action Groups learn to work through consensus and report back frequently to the full partnership. In the early stages of operation, there may be only a few Working Groups in a partnership, but more may come into existence as the partnership grows. Many partnerships which have been operating for several years may have 10 or more active Working Groups.

Working Groups often begin with a burst of enthusiasm, but the daily demands of each person’s individual ministry can dampen the energy of the group. Sometimes Working Groups accomplish very little in the time between Partnership Meetings. It is therefore very important that the Facilitator(s) actively encourage and motivate Action Groups and find sensitive ways to ensure that each Group works on achieving the goals they have set.

All along it is important to remember that the organizing groups of a partnership are merely instrumentally important, not intrinsically important. Organizing groups serve the purpose of the partnership, but they are not what the partnership is all about. What is intrinsically important to the partnership – what is essential – is the core of trusting relationships and the vision that draws you together.

As the old proverb says, “Woe to the man who builds a tower to store grain for his fields, but in becoming caretaker of the tower forgets his fields, and loses the harvest.”