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Tools for Sustaining Partnerships

Partnerships are a key element within the Office of Adolescent Health's sustainability framework. This section is for grantees who have started to reach out to other organizations in the community to begin partnering together. Specifically, this section describes practices that help build healthy partnerships. When members are strategically selected and the working relationship well managed, partnerships have the capacity to accomplish the following:

  • Increase program and service capacity,
  • Improve the efficiency of service delivery,
  • Decrease the likelihood of duplicated effort, 
  • Garner community support for your program's efforts, and
  • Sustain themselves over time.

Often, partnership development focuses on identifying key groups to include and ways to bring those groups to the table. However, convening a group of stakeholders (even if it is over multiple sessions) does not always lead to a true and functioning partnership (i.e., a group with members that work cohesively together to reach positive outcomes). To be successful, partnerships need a foundation of trust and adaptability. Bruce Tuckman, a seminal researcher in group dynamics, named five stages of group development that highlight the process by which groups form, build trust, and adapt (see Figure 1 below):

Figure 1. Bruce Tuckman's 5 Stages of Group Formation

Stages of partnerships

Of these stages, storming is the most essential. When groups first come together to begin a partnership, they start as separate entities with their own motives and differing processes. Successfully addressing conflicts through storming allows groups to actually come together into a meaningful collaboration. However, storming can cause discomfort, which can cause groups to shy away from the process. Partnerships should be prepared to spend enough time and effort in the storming phase. Failing to address conflicts undermines trust and limits the level of collaboration partnerships can achieve. 

Time also affects partnerships by introducing change. Individual people in the partnership will come and go. The organizations involved in a partnership may change (e.g., a merger may shift priorities, new accountability requirements, etc.). Even the broader environment around a partnership can change (e.g., new policies, changes to the economy, etc.). Being adaptable can help partnerships weather some of these changes.

With every change a partnership experiences, it returns to the early stages of forming and storming. Going back to those early stages can feel like a setback, but they are normal and essential steps to strengthening and sustaining partnerships by restoring trust. 

If you are developing a partnership, the following areas can help you build up trust and adaptability. Below are brief descriptions of each area; you can click through to each topic page and learn more:

  • Level of collaboration: A partnership is only the entity that connects the groups together. The level of collaboration is the amount the groups work together. Different goals require different levels of collaboration, which in turn require different levels of commitment from members of the partnership. Knowing the current level of collaboration and making sure partners agree that this is the one that best suits everyone's needs can help prevent mistrust later.
  • Decision making: How a partnership is structured and makes decisions can affect whether its members and the people they represent feel that they have a voice. The partnership structure and decision-making process need to be concerned with both the equality and equity of members. Attention to the structure and process of decision-making can also contribute to the partnership's adaptability.
  • Communication in conflict: It can feel daunting to discuss topics about which people have differing views, but it is necessary for the partnership to be successful. These strategies can help members maintain respect while not shying away from difficult conversations.

Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on October 9, 2017