Becoming more knowledgeable of a subject matter before discussing it to any extent is imperative. Fewer things are more off-putting than conversing with someone who lacks a fundamental understanding of the topics (s)he attempts to discuss — an empty wagon. The same goes in partnership development; we should avoid engaging potential partners without an inkling of understanding about what interests or benefits them. Yes, the reason for interacting with them in the first place is to learn more about what motivates them, to uncover which activities are most important to their business’s bottom line. However, in our highly digitized society conducting preliminary research on anyone or any organization is not that big of a hurdle. The results can be used to shape conversational boundaries within which to stage your initial engagement.
Planning, executing, and evaluating complex, community-centric projects — such as a public health intervention, partnership or coalition to address health inequity — requires methodical outreach efforts to thoroughly engage specific allies. In persuading an individual or an organization to join your cause, the recruiter should craft the ask in a strategic manner, appealing to reasons people typically want to support any cause. Your pitch does not require begging, conversational chicanery, or blanketing potential partners with guilt. Asking them if they can provide very specific resources to advance very specific outcomes on a very specific timeline can be more effective.
According to Coalitions and Partnerships in Community Health — a resourceful book about developing and sustaining partnerships and coalitions — there are four approaches you can take in recruiting people once you understand what motivates them to partner or otherwise drives them to join your public health intervention or cause.
This approach can be quite effective if the objectives and intended outcomes of your public health intervention aligns with that of potential partners’ organizational mission or personal ethos. Consider health inequity — a completely avoidable public health disaster. Hypothetically speaking, a grocer may offer subpar produce even though consumers repeatedly demand better quality fruit and vegetables. There are no insurmountable issues with delivery logistics or store displays and customers have adequate purchasing power, yet an unfounded notion misguides the grocer’s inventory management practices.
Even if problematic logistics and inadequate displays were the case, they are not unconquerable. Deciding not to meet this specific consumer demand is legal, albeit a bad business practice, because customers can always take their business elsewhere. To continue this hypothetical situation — which is not as far-fetched as one may think — there are no other grocers within a reasonable distance. The grocer’s owner is well aware of this unfortunate detail, seeing it as reassurance disgruntled patrons will continue supporting the establishment. As an aside, this hypothetical situation is not a shrouded attempt to assail businesses’ commercial free speech rights, position governmental regulations or overreach as a natural solution, or excuse unfounded complaints from implacable customers.
In this example, the issue of intentionally presenting substandard produce has persisted for quite some time — warranting community members to convene a partnership or coalition to address the problem. In such a collaboration, the initial step may be simply raising awareness on a larger scale. The members of the newly found alliance organize a protest or march. Unfavorable attention highlighting any particular issue can be enough to rectify it. It may be ideal to recruit a reporter, blogger or social media-savvy activist among others to join the partnership or coalition. Each of the three potential partners have distinct self-interests to meet.
The reporter’s boss may have granted him some latitude to cover stories of personal interest — such as social injustice. Reporting on the grocers refusal to address customers’ complaints could create a media narrative far more damning for the grocer than negligent inventory management practices — takeaways once elevated by mainstream media are difficult to retract. Having broadened her topics to nutrition, a blogger may discuss the importance of consuming your daily allowance of fresh fruit and vegetables. Covering the grocer’s misdeeds with a following of 5,000 blog subscribers could rapidly spread the message of compatriots intentionally being impeded from consuming nutritious food.
Effortlessly navigating the Twitter sphere, a local activist with a formidable following may be seeking a community project in which to partake and promote within his network. Tweeting about the grocer’s bad business practices with the appropriate mix of trending hashtags and retweets may produce unwanted attention from the local health department, the government agency which issued the grocer’s business license, or a national, resource-rich activist organization looking to make an example of how questionable business practices are addressed.
Ask anyone who has fallen victim to Internet backlash; it is not an easy or pleasant situation to overcome — yet the partnership or coalition would have achieved its goal of raising awareness.
Indicative of a direct sales appeal, this approach presents a transaction between those managing a public health intervention, partnership or coalition and the organization or individual being recruited as potential partners. Consider a non-profit deploying an intervention to address inadequate classroom supplies at a local elementary school. From this angle, the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of said nonprofit can offer a six-month feature of the biggest corporate donor in the organization’s monthly e-newsletter which has a base readership of 20,000 subscribers. The CMO can also arrange for the donating organization’s Vice President of Social Responsibility to lead the plenary at one of it major annual conferences.
In this transaction, both parties benefit. The non-profit is able to deliver on a pledge to provide classroom supplies to a nearby cash-strapped elementary school and the corporate donor capitalizes on an opportunity to increase its goodwill — a tricky intangible resource to accumulate at times — or submit the donation as a tax write-off. However, engaging in transactional approaches to develop partnerships must be handled with care. The sticking point here is to use the transaction as a means to an end — a long-term, productive partnership. The transaction itself is neither the end nor a single act of collaborating. The CMO of the nonprofit may consider engaging her Chief Executive Officer or Chief Strategy Officer in nurturing an ongoing relationship with the corporate donor, establishing long-term avenues through which each party can continue to serve the others’ needs.
Often used in public health, this approach relies on the concept of the public good. Potential partners motivated by altruism care about issues you are attempting to address; they will readily contribute their time to advance your cause. Such partners are great for completing low-intensity public health functions. Examples include stuffing bags to disseminate at an event, using their social media following to spread information, or transporting members of your priority population from one venue to another on Saturday mornings. For more complex interventions, partners motivated for altruistic reasons may not be able to provide adequate talents or resources. Consider efforts to clean up trash laden community blocks, an area of the community the city government stop servicing for reasons not clearly articulated. Picking up trash and responsibly disposing of it comprise one phase of the public health intervention, reestablishing trash removal and litter control measures is a separate one.
Altruistic partners may readily volunteer their time on the weekends to pick up trash — which is valuable in accomplishing the public health goal — yet are unable to conduct recurring grassroots efforts required to effect policy change. A city resident must obtain enough signatures to have measures to restore trash removal and litter control placed on the ballot in an upcoming election. In demanding the restoration of said services via another official capacity, someone needs to arrange meetings with city council members and orchestrate the attendance of affected constituents. In yet another situation, a person with persuasive writing and public speaking skills should speak during city council meetings or craft coherent talking points and contingency responses to assist others with making powerful arguments. These commitments require significantly more time altruistic partners may not be able or willing to provide. It does not make them half-ass; it means they are not a good fit for interventions involving heavier, longer term lifts.
Social Needs Approach
The human condition rests on assuaging our need to belong, associate with others, and conform to what others are doing — desires which the social needs approach quenches. Potential partners may seek opportunities to alleviate a sense of guilt or shame. They also explore opportunities to support efforts affecting them personally.
Let’s say a local health department (LHD) realizes many county residents it serves are not undergoing age-centric, United States Preventive Services Taskforce recommended colorectal cancer screenings. The LHD health director convenes a coalition of public health professionals and residents to learn more about specific barriers to screening services. With the social needs approach, ideal people to lead this effort would be those with a spouse suffering from colorectal cancer, a mother who had a breast cancer scare, someone personally unaffected by cancer yet has a desire to support a cause addressing human suffering or other highly personally connected reasons.
A recurring theme in my partnership development experiences — irrespective of the intervention my team and I deploy — is time-intensive, meticulously strategic planning. After identifying specific outcomes to achieve, my team and I have used all four of the approaches discussed in this blog to determine which partners offer the necessary financial, human and intellectual resources necessary to achieve our goals and how in doing so benefits them. Even with executing such a thorough process, being told no remains a strong possibility. Time has shown me no can mean not right now, the potential partners still does not understand how your endeavor benefits them, or the potential ally is not a good fit and you should move forward. Moreover, a satisfactory explanation for hearing no may not exist, another reason to accept it. This process is not exactly revolutionary — yet can be elusive.
The glory of previous partnership activities does not necessary mean the next opportunity will be equally successful. While certain partners can be helpful in executing many interventions, we must avoid forcing squares into round holes. Asking specific partners to do very specific things in a very specific way has to be pursued with each intervention or partnership aim. This means we must identify one or more of the three reasons people tend to partner — choosing the those motivated by the one(s) suitable for our cause. Once ascertained, being nimble in using the four approaches to win them over may not be as challenging. The ensuing partnership will be achieving joint goals in no time.