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A partnership, especially one that seeks to have a high-level of collaboration, needs to be able to make decisions. Specifically, it needs to be able to make major decisions when faced with a challenge or issue. The ability to make decisions allows partnerships to progress towards goals and encourages adaptability in the face of adversity. 

The people who are invited to take part in the decision-making process, how different opinions are collected, and how the partnership reaches a consensus all affect whether groups feel valued and that they can trust their partners. In general, partnerships work better when decisions are made in a way that recognizes and respects the social relationship of its members. In other words, when decision-making promotes equity and maximizes the benefit to all members (i.e., rather than being dominated by a single or only a few entities), trust is built and members want to continue maintaining the relationship between their organizations.

Bringing People to the Table

Ideally, partnerships bring together diverse stakeholders. Representation matters when picking partners. Specifically, partnerships should seek to reflect the community being served and may need to take extra care to elevate voices that have largely been previously omitted from discussions. Factors that partnerships may want to consider when looking at how their members represent the community include:

  • Culture
  • Socioeconomic status
  • History/ties to the community
  • Sectors

It can be particularly vital for partnerships to reach out to groups that have been ignored by the community, especially if they hope to improve outcomes for these groups. For partnerships that work with youth, an extension of this outreach would be to ensure that opportunities to contribute to the partnership are available to young people. 

Beyond thinking about the general membership for a partnership, it also may make sense to invite groups or individuals to be members for a specific period of time. For example, if your partnership is tackling a new project, it may require input from a group that has not been affected by your work previously, or perhaps there is an individual with specific expertise needed to implement a project.

Consent and Decision-Making

While inviting people to the table is a first step toward breaking down barriers, what happens in the partnership determines the level of trust within it. Much of this trust will generally be based on members’ day-to-day communications with each other. However, the decision-making process and whether people feel their concerns are listened to and addressed also impacts members’ trust in each other. The guiding principle of consent can help partnerships with decision-making.

When partnerships use consent as the guiding principle for decision-making, they commit to not making policy decisions if people have raised significant objections. In other words, when confronted with a problem, partnerships will only agree to proposals when people feel they no longer have large concerns. There are usually three steps involved in making major decisions: 

  1. Naming the issue.  To get started, partnerships must specify what problem they hope to solve and the factors affecting it. An issue may be identified through a formal needs assessment or an observation based on ongoing monitoring efforts.
  2. Coming up with proposal(s).  Once the issue has been named, members then share their ideas for how to tackle the issue. Representation especially matters in this step and the next one since different perspectives can lead to fresh ideas. To foster open sharing, members are often asked not to critique or dismiss ideas. It is also possible to ask people to think about an issue independently for a time before coming together to share proposals. 
  3. Deciding on a proposed plan of action. This is the step where consent is applied. Once proposals have been shared, members can provide quick reactions (e.g., whether they think it’s a good idea or if they want to refine it further). Once this process is complete, members offer their individual consent to the proposal or raise objections, if they have any.

A key element of consent is that it must be unanimous. Partnerships cannot move forward if a member raises a specific, serious objection (i.e., "I just don’t like it" would not be sufficient, the person must name why). Requiring consent from each member can prevent individuals from being overrun by the group. Additionally, having specific times for discussion can help partnerships stay focused and ensure that concerns get the attention they need.  

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