Operational Issues In Partnerships: Communication

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 highlights the importance of communication to four key groups of stakeholders in every partnership.

 

Operational Issues In Partnership: Communication

Effective communication is a critical goal in the Operation Phase of a collaborative partnership. A partnership Facilitator cannot allow the partnership to go “dark” and “quiet” – even if good work is being accomplished. Perceptions are important, and unfortunately, when people don’t know what’s happening, they will often simply assume that something is wrong. The Facilitator must therefore “keep the lamps burning” and the “music playing” by fostering frequent, interactive communications in the partnership. A consistent flow of communication will strengthen trust among the partners and expand the depth and breadth of their commitment.

One of the key success factors in effective collaborative partnerships stems from the realization that there are more interests involved in the partnership than the partners themselves. Effective partnerships realize that the need for communication extends far beyond the leadership team or the wider group of partners. As a partnership grows, at least four groups of stakeholders, or constituencies, will need to be acknowledged:

  1. The group of people the partnership is trying to reach or serve. Your partnership must listen to these people carefully if you want to reach or serve them effectively.
  2. The people in the partnership itself. As you dream together, work together, and set mutually-agreed goals, expectations will rise. Anticipation can be high. The partners are committing time, energy, money, and often other resources. Keeping these people informed and motivated by communicating both the good and the not-so-good news is vital.
  3. The leadership and staff of the organizations or ministries participating in your initiative. The people who give their approval and continue to affirm the involvement of their own people in the initiative need to know that the whole venture is bringing added value to the mission for which they are responsible.
  4. Those who pray, give, and provide support for the partners and the partnership. What are their expectations? What do they think the initiative is all about? Can you report to them in terms they understand?

Effective partnerships are aware of these constituencies and strive to continually communicate the progress of the partnership in ways that each constituency appreciates. Each of these groups has expectations, and to keep their interest active, they need hope that will carry them forward.

Partnerships that fail to recognize and respond to these differing constituencies are usually headed for disaster.

With those ideas in mind, let’s take a closer look at each of these four major constituencies.

 

Constituency #1: The Primary Audience

These are the people we want to reach and serve through the partnership. For example, they may be:

  • Members of an immigrant community in your city
  • Street people and the homeless
  • The leadership and teaching staff of schools in your area
  • International students at local community colleges and universities
  • The whole city – thinking big and looking at the whole picture
  • A language group overseas that your church has adopted but not engaged

Every effective partnership responds to the perceived needs in its audience. So many Christian initiatives fail because their message and approach to communications is based on what they, the partnership members, think is a high priority, but not necessarily what the audience thinks is important!

It seems so obvious, but think about it. When was the last time your church actually went into the community within, say, a one- or two-mile radius of the church and asked questions and really listened to the responses? We have often been amazed at missionary initiatives that seek to reach an “unreached” people group but can’t, with any degree of certainty, identify what members of the people group feel are their three to four most critical needs.

When we’re convinced of our position, there’s a tendency to feel we don’t have to ask questions. Unfortunately, often the more evangelical the background or purpose of the group, the more certain people are of both their message and their means of communicating it! What is the need, problem, or issue that will establish credibility for your partnership as it effectively, successfully responds to the needs of the people you’re trying to reach or serve?

Actively listening to the primary audience and really understanding their needs will impact:

  • The way you value them
  • The richness and focus of your partnership’s vision
  • The partnership’s goals
  • The way the partnership communicates the good news
  • How you evaluate your partnership’s effectiveness

Keep in mind that – as in any other relationship – needs, concerns, and priorities change. We need to continue asking questions, making sure we’re in touch with the people we’re committed to reaching and serving with Jesus’ love and power. That’s the whole point of the partnership.

Consider the following story of a partnership in practice:

Boxon was a small town, even for a mountain state. Nevertheless, it had five Christian churches. For three years the pastors of the churches had met once a month to share experiences and concerns and to pray for each other. The fellowship was rich and the prayer provided real support. But eventually, they agreed, the group would grow stale if it didn’t take this same inter-church experience into the community.

Two lay representatives from each church were selected. Along with the pastors, they prayed and decided to survey the town, asking citizens, community leaders, service agencies, and schools what they felt were Boxon’s greatest needs.

After compiling a long list, the team from the churches selected one problem that had emerged again and again. They felt that they could be a witness and serve the community in the name of Christ by meeting the critical need of tutoring for students needing special help. Today, hundreds of students are being personally tutored by volunteers of all ages from the Boxon church partnership. Instead of dropping out of school and becoming a community liability, they’re finishing school and getting jobs. In the process, families have been strengthened and the churches have new connections and credibility in the community. In addition, many parents as well as students have come to know Christ because of the program.

 

Constituency # 2: The Partnership Itself

We learned a long time ago that the very act of sitting down with a person to share the dream of partnership between ministries can raise unspoken expectations. The Catalyst(s) of the partnership may have to visit leaders of many organizations, often more than once (especially in the early Exploration stage). In this intensive, personal, relational work, our communication often affects others by raising their expectations.

In some cases, people we talk with will talk with each other. They will compare notes on their own sense of how viable the partnership might be. And when people start making those connections, expectations are sure to rise. Some may expect failure; others may just look for you to keep your word. Others may actually have a spark of hope born in their hearts.

Expectations rise even more when you bring these individuals together in a meeting. Achieving consensus on priorities, action steps, timetables, and assignments of responsibility significantly builds expectations among your partners.

When you get this far, even though a partnership is still in its early start-up stages, the group begins to develop expectations at many levels. At least the majority of the participants are hoping and praying for good outcomes. Many will be committed to working toward the positive outcomes all have agreed on. But even among the most enthusiastic advocates, many will be wondering, “Will it really work?” We have seen so many well-intentioned cooperative efforts never get anywhere. Hopes may be high. But quiet (and maybe some not so quiet!) skepticism will still be prevalent. Then, as participants agree on action steps and partnership responsibilities, they will also form expectations of the facilitator or facilitation team and others who have assumed roles in implementing the action points.

As a partnership matures, expectations involve more people and more complex objectives. Here are some things you can do to help realistically define and then meet the participants’ expectations:

  • Work hard to keep initial objectives limited and achievable.
  • Make sure everyone understands what the objectives are, how you’ll know if you’ve met the objectives (basis for evaluation/measuring), and what the timetable is for meeting them. As a partnership matures, it may develop multiple objectives for working toward its overall vision. Identifying multiple “milestones” for a single objective is helpful, allowing those doing the work and those getting news about the progress to deal with realistic, “bite sized” tasks.
  • Define communications clearly: Who has responsibility to communicate, by what means? (letter, calls, e-mail, personal updates), with whom, how often, and regarding which aspects of the partnership’s efforts? Remember: once communications have been promised, those promises must be kept. Nothing destroys credibility (of people and the process) sooner than unmet communications promises!
  • Finally, we have found that while people may have high hopes and expectations, they rarely expect perfection. Aspects of the partnership’s plans may not be completely achieved. What participants want to know is, generally, how well are we doing, and are we actually accomplishing anything by working together?! Timely, reliable communication is vital – whether you have all the good news you would like to report or not.

 
Consider the following story of a partnership in practice:

The youth outreach partnership, made up of about twenty-five organizations, had come together to help coordinate work in a sprawling urban landscape. The effort involved ministries dealing with homeless and street kids, people running tutorial programs for youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds, outreach through sports programs, groups working on addiction and substance abuse issues, traditional school evangelistic outreach initiatives, many area churches, and local camping and “outward bound” programs.

Early on, the group had identified three priority projects: ministry to single parents and their children, outreach to street kids, and student leadership development. Each of these projects developed its own working group. Each working group involved five to fifteen of the participating ministries, based on their interest and expertise.

Beyond those specific projects, they agreed on three key overall indicators. Having done some basic research when the partnership was launched, the group wanted to monitor:

  • The total number of non-Christian kids involved in the various outreach programs.
  • How many were making decisions to follow Christ.
  • How many were active in student discipleship programs.

They believed that by coordinating their efforts they could build on each other’s strengths, extend their influence, and see much greater impact.

While the project working groups met frequently to deal with operational details, the leadership of the twenty-five member organizations met quarterly to: 1) Get an update on the three priority projects 2) Hear reports from each group on the three common indicators they had agreed to monitor, and, 3) Pray for each other, for school administrative and teaching staff, and for kids and families with special needs.

Fifteen months into the life of the partnership, at the quarterly review meeting, the group got badly sidetracked talking about specific policies in one of the three priority projects. The whole group was involved in the discussion that had gone on for three hours! People were beginning to say they had to leave (early), spirits were clearly on edge, and frustration was high. Wilson, one agency’s outspoken leader, said quite bluntly, “I really don’t have time for this. I got involved with the partnership because I wanted to see the big picture and to have a chance to work with like-minded people who really want to make a difference. Frankly, this whole discussion has been very de-motivating for me.”

Peter, who was heading the facilitation team, immediately sensed the crisis. The spirit of the group was plummeting and the partnership’s value was being seriously challenged—just as good things were beginning to happen. Peter did several key things:

  • Acknowledged that Wilson’s remarks were on target and probably represented the view of many others.
  • Asked everyone to give the process at least one more hour (the group had agreed they would give six hours, 9:00-3:00, to these quarterly meetings, and it was now 1:30).
  • Asked the project group whose policies had been discussed to death by the whole partnership to take a break, work on the issues, and report back.
  • Reminded the overall group of the three primary indicators everyone had agreed were a priority to monitor and suggested the group move into reporting on those indicators.

Within fifteen minutes the mood of the group had changed, as they began to hear encouraging news about the expanded number of kids in outreach programs, those coming to Christ, and the totals involved in discipleship. The prayer time that followed contained as much praise as petition!

Good people with good intent had temporarily lost focus. The group’s key expectations had been lost in a fog of aimless discussion. Fortunately, the motivation was there all along.

Participants in a partnership need the constant encouragement that their joint vision is worth the effort and making a difference. If expectations are not being met, that needs to be honestly addressed to find out why (wrong expectations, wrong strategies, or problem relationships?). Then the group needs to agree on an action plan to get back on course.

 

Constituency #3: Leadership & Staff of Partner Organizations

A step or two back from the “front lines,” these people and their support are vital for a partnership’s long-term health and effectiveness. These individuals may be across town, housed in a church or an office. They may be 1,000 miles away in a regional or national headquarters. For international ministries, the “next level up” may be at the home office 6,000 miles away!

As we work to form and sustain healthy partnerships, keep in mind that 98% of the participants probably already have full-time assignments with their own organizations. Effectively meeting the expectations in that assignment is usually the first priority for them – and their supervisors. No matter how attractive the partnership vision, the time and energy invested by these people in the partnership, particularly in the early stages, will almost surely be seen as an add-on to their primary job.

Levels of commitment to the partnership (as a percentage of total working time) will vary significantly. The amount of time given is really only relevant to the responsibilities the individual or ministry has assumed in the partnership. The real issue is their belief in and commitment to the partnership. Of course we frequently equate time invested to a person or organization’s level of commitment.

Participants in your partnership have a wide range of autonomy in their jobs. Some are closely watched and supervised by their superiors and have limited authority over their time or other resources. Others will have wide-ranging autonomy and considerable discretion in time and resource allocation.

The most intense feelings about a problem are almost always felt by those working at the front line. As you move back up the ladder of organization or ministry structure, the day-to-day agony and ecstasy are not felt in the same way. This usually means that those most ready to partner and often the most enthusiastic are those who see the needs and problems and experience the loneliness firsthand.

Up the organizational chart, motivations and daily challenges are different. Your partner in the field and his or her boss probably live in two different worlds. In some ministries, their relationships may be close, communicative, and fully appreciative of each other’s circumstances. In others, their relationships may seem like being on opposite sides of the moon!

Consider the following story of a partnership in practice:

Jack, a participant in the youth partnership previously discussed, couldn’t figure out why his senior manager seemed increasingly reluctant to give him the time needed to attend the partnership meetings. Fulfilling his role on the partnership’s “street kids” working group was more and more of a challenge.

When the partnership first formed, Jack’s manager was enthusiastic. Along with Jack, he had represented the organization at the partnership formation meetings and personally attended a few of the early operational meetings. Jack thought the partnership was making real progress, and the street kids working group had already put together several joint projects that were showing potential. All were projects none of the youth agencies could ever have undertaken alone.

Frustrated and confused by his boss’ attitude, Jack consulted with the partnership facilitator. “I think you’d better talk to your boss about his expectations,” the facilitator suggested. “He’s got to clearly see the value the partnership is bringing to your organization. Remember, his job is to make sure that staff members are focused and productive within your own organization’s mission.”

Two days later, Jack’s conversation with his manager revealed that Jack simply hadn’t been communicating the partnership’s significant advances. Even more important, Jack had not been communicating how the partnership was advancing his own organization’s mission. Jack’s manager and other senior leadership had, without Jack’s knowledge, begun to seriously question the investment of Jack’s time in the joint effort.

In short, a partnership frequently doesn’t have the same priority at the regional or home office that it does in the field. Attitudes toward “going it alone” and strategic alliances are changing. More and more ministries are seeing they can’t do it all themselves. That’s good news. But the motivation for investing time and other resources and the potential or real benefits in a partnership need to be very clear to the ministry’s administrative leadership.

One danger is that a person will take a key responsibility in a partnership without the awareness (and possibly approval) of his or her boss. This may damage the relationship between an individual and a superior. I have also seen the devastating impact on a partnership when an individual or ministry is withdrawn from the partnership by a superior due to lack of internal agreement regarding the staff member’s role or the partnership’s value.

It is vital for the partnership facilitator or facilitation team to maintain close relations with the partnership participants. Facilitators need to try to sensitively monitor how superiors view the involvement of their field in the partnership and what expectations those superiors have.

Here are some suggestions for ensuring alignment between the field person’s involvement in the partnership and the expectations of superiors.

  • If you’re serving as a facilitator or member of a facilitation team, make sure the participants themselves understand clearly:
    • The general and specific mission of their ministries in the geographical area of the partnership’s focus.
    • The mission of their ministries in the sector on which the partnership is focused. This may be youth ministry, urban outreach, church planting, campus evangelism, medical/educational service, church planting in an unreached people group, or one of dozens of other possible objectives.
    • How their supervisors define success for the geographical area, the ministry sector, and the team member in the partnership. The supervisor’s expectation and the participant’s ability to report outcomes from the partnership have to be in alignment!
  • Work hard at ensuring that each participant has signed off in some meaningful way on your partnership’s objectives and can see clearly how achieving the objectives will help his or her ministry realize its own goals.
  • Agree on what kinds of information or communications about the partnership are needed by participants in reporting to their superiors. This may be the highlights of the partnership’s work and decisions made in any of your working meetings. It may include reporting on the partnership’s progress on key objectives, carried out on agreed-upon timetable.
  • Partnership participants may need special help interpreting the partnership’s operations, objectives, and outcomes “back up the line” to their superiors. This may be as simple as personalized memoranda they produce to go along with documentation the partnership is already generating. As facilitator, you play a valuable role by asking participants how their colleagues view the partnership and how you can help communicate the partnership’s work and vision to those colleagues.
  • Consider specifically designing at least one partnership working meeting every six to twelve months to include senior leadership of the partner ministries. Make sure the invitations to the event are clear and issued well in advance. The format of those meetings should take into consideration that these additional participants don’t have the same depth of experience with the partnership, its style of meeting, making decisions, setting priorities, or other elements you and others may have come to take for granted. You may need at least a brief orientation session for these meetings to bring occasional or new participants up to speed.

 

Constituency #4: Those who Pray, Give, and Support the Partnership

By definition, a partnership is composed of diverse individuals and ministries drawn together by a common vision. Behind each of those partners is an administrative structure (constituency #3), and, often, behind the administrative structure are the people who really make it possible – the individuals praying, investing, and advocating. Ultimately, they are the ones who resource the front line.

This constituency has its own motivation for giving, praying, and advocating. They have their own expectations about results. And they have their own ideas about the frequency and nature of the communications they get from the front line.

This constituency has many faces. For example, it may be:

  • A local church investing in a street kids program
  • An individual financially supporting a missionary 5,000 miles away
  • A prayer group supporting a local urban evangelism initiative
  • A foundation committed to funding a special aspect of a Christian health initiative
  • A lay person advocating on behalf of an innovative, Kingdom-value educational/tutorial program

Consider the following story of a partnership in practice:

More than thirty years earlier, churches in Sweden had commissioned and sent missionaries to a challenging Asian country. The churches prayed for and financially supported the missionaries with one objective in mind: seeing individuals in that country come to Christ and a local church established.

In the early years the Swedish missionaries often had to work alone against formidable odds. Over the years, however, more ministries came into the country. In the last few years, missionaries from different ministries had begun to meet, pray, and plan together. The leadership of the small but growing national church joined these planning meetings.

It wasn’t long before the individual missionaries and national leaders acknowledged, “The job’s just too big and complex for any one ministry.” After much prayer and work, with help from a neutral facilitator, a partnership was formed. The Swedish missionaries enthusiastically got involved. But now they were no longer on their own, reporting just on what they did. Suddenly they were working with individuals and ministries from around the world. How would they report back to their supporting churches? The Swedish missionaries’ contribution to the partnerships objectives was vital but modest in proportion to the total effort. When advances were made, they could no longer claim sole credit.

As the partnership refined its objectives, agreed on how success was to be defined, and developed its own internal communications process, the churches 6,000 miles away in Sweden needed information, too.

Keep in mind the churches’ basic expectations:

  • Their missionaries would be preaching the gospel.
  • Despite what they understood to be great opposition, individuals would be turning to Christ.
  • Local fellowships would be formed by these new believers.
  • Emerging leaders in these local churches would be identified, trained, and encouraged to take the vision into the next generation.

The churches in Sweden needed:

  • Information from the field using terms they understood.
  • Outcomes that clearly aligned with their motivation and expectations in supporting the missionaries.
  • From all this, a sense that God was giving them at home a part in the positive outcomes at the front lines.

It was that kind of information flow that encouraged them, fueled their prayers, sustained their motivation, and provided the spiritual fulfillment they needed.

To help all the partner agencies communicate with their supporting constituencies, the partnership did several things:

  • Ensured that the partnership’s objectives were clear and that the means for measuring progress were agreed on by everyone.
  • Made sure the expectations of the various participants were clear.
  • Worked hard to report in a timely manner on progress toward the agreed-upon outcomes, thus helping to meet expectations.
  • Made sure that the form of reporting included human interest stories about changing lives, not just cold statistics or “partnership talk.”
  • Informally checked with key personnel from each partner agency on the health of their communications up the line. Sometimes that required the facilitators to help find special information or document special stories that were needed by a specific partner ministry.

Was the partnership itself responsible for effective communication with those churches? Of course not. But to keep the wholehearted involvement of the Swedish missionaries, the partnership and its facilitation team needed to:

  • Help participant ministries see clearly how realizing the partnership’s objectives would help them meet their own ministry objectives. It’s a good exercise in a group session to ask each ministry, “Could you summarize in one to two minutes how you see this (these) partnership objective(s) helping your ministry meet its own vision and mission?”
  • Make sure they understood the objectives and the communication needs of all the ministries in the partnership.
  • Help each partner ministry interpret the partnership’s outcomes in terms that supporting constituencies can understand and will value.
  • Keep in mind: Frequently those faithfully supporting ministries in the partnership know little about how widely different groups can effectively work together at the front line because they haven’t seen good examples. Many fear that their organization’s distinctives will be diluted or completely lost. They tend to know only the traditional experience most of us have had: that churches and Christian organizations effectively working together, respecting each other’s unique contribution, is the exception, not the rule!

So here we have four constituencies and four sets of expectations that, at times, may overlap or converge. Frequently the expectations of these constituencies can be unique, requiring active attention and communications.

Be aware of the four groups and talk within your partnership about them and their expectations. Meeting those expectations has a powerful effect on hope and the long-term effectiveness of the partnership.

Being able to share successes, with everyone seeing how God is using the joint efforts of the group, can strengthen the sense of community. It will also build trust and a sense of the richness of God’s grace and wisdom, as we see how our different roles are part of his bigger picture.

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