Five Good Ideas for building thriving partnerships within the charitable and non-profit sector
If you want to go far, go together. Well, at least sometimes. There are many compelling reasons why charities and non-profit organizations might seek to collaborate in different ways: to have greater impact, for broader reach, to create efficiencies, or perhaps when driven by funder interests. But as great as partnership and collaboration sound, they can also be tricky to establish, nurture, assess, and know when (and how) to end. Join Teresa Marques, President & CEO of the Rideau Hall Foundation, for five good ideas on how to navigate effective partnership development within the non-profit and charitable sector. Spoiler alert: Trust has a big role to play.
Five Good Ideas
- Form should follow function: Figure out your internal and shared goals, the table stakes for each party, and your respective strengths and weaknesses, then design the partnership model that best suits your situation. Don’t make assumptions about your partner.
- Be open to unconventional arrangements and “unusual bedfellow” partners. Seek out complementarity as opposed to similarity.
- People matter. Yes, the partnership is between organizations, but people and relationships are the critical glue and enabler of success.
- Details matter. Figure out the parameters for decision making, accountabilities, and timelines (including sunset) and write them all down. Plan for anticipated and unanticipated costs and think ahead about financial management.
- Trust matters most: You will be able to move much more quickly, and go farther together, if there’s trust and open communication between partners. Invest early in a culture of trust.
- (Book) Trust: Twenty Ways to Build a Better Country – by David Johnston (2018).
- (Paper – Conference Board of Canada) “The Status of Collaboration and the Role of Innovation: Supporting Networks in Canadian Industry” – by Sorin Cohn and Bruce Good
- (Book) Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust – by Adam Kahane (2017).
- (Online series – Stanford Social Innovation Review) “Advancing the Art of Collaboration.”
- (Podcast – HBR IdeaCast) “The Subtle Art of Saying No.”
Please note: This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Now, while many of you are dialing in from across Canada and sometimes places beyond the borders, I’m speaking to you from Toronto. And I’d like to begin today’s session by acknowledging the land where we live and work and recognizing our responsibilities and relationships where we are.
As we are meeting and connecting virtually, I encourage you to acknowledge the place you occupy. I acknowledge that I am, and Maytree is, on the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinabek, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples, and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples.
We also acknowledge that Toronto is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit and also covered by the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, which was an agreement between the Haudonosaunee and the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the lands and resources around the Great Lakes.
So, today’s session. There are many compelling reasons why charities and nonprofit organizations might seek to collaborate in different ways: to have greater impact, for broader reach, to create efficiencies or perhaps when they’re driven by funder interests. But as great as partnership and collaboration may sound, they can also be tricky to establish, nurture, assess and know when, and how, to end.
In today’s session, we’re really pleased to have Teresa Marques who will present her five good ideas on how to navigate effective partnership development within the nonprofit and charitable space. Teresa Marques is an established senior executive and educator in the nonprofit sector. She’s currently the President and CEO of the Rideau Hall Foundation, an independent national charity with a vision for a better Canada.
The foundation works to address key challenges facing the country in the areas of learning equity, creating a culture of innovation, leadership development, and by strengthening Canada’s culture of giving and volunteerism.
It is now my pleasure to welcome Teresa. Welcome.
Teresa Marques: Thank you, Elizabeth. It is so great to be with you today. I’m joining you from the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinabek people. And I’m here today to talk about my own experience in developing strong partnerships across the charitable and nonprofit landscape. I’m especially pleased to be talking with the Maytree community of incredible social sector leaders from all parts of the country.
When I was looking at the who’s who in the room and preparing for this talk, a few things became pretty clear to me. First of all, this issue around collaboration and partnership building is something that people care about and that I think we’re all kind of grappling with. I think it’s made clear by the turnout. But it’s also made clear just through anecdotal conversations that I’ve been having at a micro-level, one-on-one with sector leaders particularly over the course of the pandemic.
I think in many ways, the pandemic has made stark our own vulnerability, as well as our mutual interdependence as a people, as a sector, and as a country. And I think that’s part of what might be driving the interest in this conversation today. Secondly, I think we’re all looking for new solutions to increasingly complex challenges. And I think that there’s a realization that long-term social change cannot be driven by any one of us alone.
Old ways of working aren’t going to deliver the solutions that Canada needs. It’s going to take new kinds of collaboration and partnership to deliver change and change that’s lasting. And I think that partnership sounds good and it sounds benign. And it sounds easy. But as we’ve learned at the Rideau Hall Foundation, and as I’ve learned, it can be really hard to know where to begin, how to operate in partnership, how to be a good partner, and when to end. And I’m thinking specifically primarily about partnership and collaboration across the charitable sector and across nonprofits, less about between sectors, if you will. But we’ll talk more about that as we go.
Thirdly, I think this audience represents a really significant diversity within the charitable and nonprofit sector, which is wonderful. You have so much more to share on this topic. And I’d love to try to surface your own experiences, lessons learned, and best practices. I’m not holding myself out as an expert on partnership development, but rather as a work-in-progress and someone who is learning by doing.
The last observation before I get into the substance of today is that as I was preparing for this talk, I realized that it’s a really personal conversation. It’s about how well we play with others. And it could be mirrored in how we act in our personal lives, in our families, in our communities, and at work. And I admit I felt a degree of vulnerability even in preparing for this talk because it’s not objective. It’s not about any one of the findings of a report that we had that we’d taken on or work that we had done or a new program that we’d launched.
So, I did. I felt vulnerable. But I actually think that being open and vulnerable as a starting point is a really good way to learn, starting with humility and openness as to what might be possible. So, even though I have five, what I hope are good points, I’m going to add in a sixth, sort of a sneak attack on vulnerability, because I do think that being vulnerable is a really good place to begin to build real relationships. And that’s what good partnerships are all about.
So, I’d like to start by telling you a little bit more about the Rideau Hall Foundation because I think it’s pertinent in many ways to the conversation today and to the five ideas that I’d like to share. So, as Elizabeth mentioned, we’re a national charity based in Ottawa. And we’re focused on building a better Canada for all Canadians to succeed and to thrive to their fullest potential. We work to amplify those values that serve to unite us as a country instead of divide us.
All of our work is anchored along four areas of focus around innovation in the country, widening the circle of giving and volunteering, leadership development in the leadership of our public institutions, and learning equity. So, a broad sort of scope of interests, but it’s a broad country with complex needs to be tackled.
Everything that we do is rooted in collaboration, which again has been an amazing starting point to help us engage in some very interesting and meaningful work, but nothing kind of looks like anything else at the Rideau Hall Foundation. So, across those four areas of focus, we operate about 12 to 15 particular projects. And each project will have its own set of partners, its own metrics, its own outcomes, and its own modus operandi.
When I think about the toolkit in terms of how we work in partnership, very simply, there seems to be four ways that we work. The first way of working, the first way of collaborating has to do with our convening role. So, traditionally, the Office of the Governor General, which is independent from the Rideau Hall Foundation, has that primary responsibility and role to convene Canadians around issues of importance to the country.
So, we’ve taken on more of that role as well, convening Canadians and organizations across sectors on key issues. We also work on catalyzing new initiatives. So once the conversation has happened, then what? We can work to bring together the right people, ideas, some resourcing, and some infrastructure to give a project a home for a period of time to catalyze it and then to set it on its way.
The third way in which we work is to bring funding to the table. So, we’re not a formal grant-making foundation, but we do have the ability to bring financial resources to the table. Sometimes that means a direct grant or contribution. Sometimes it means that we’ll actually go out and fundraise for another project of an organization that we’re working with.
And the last way of working is by playing that role of kind of administrator or operating partner where folks on our team serve as that operational support system to a project that might not have the capacity to do it alone. So, this flexibility and range of ways of working is both a blessing and a curse again because nothing looks like anything else.
It allows you to be really focused on the outcome that you want to see achieved and to bring the right tools and resources to the table without presuming what those tools and resources are going to be at the very outset. So, with every partnership that we engage in, our starting point is really to say, “How can we help?” And the answer to that question will look a bit different each time. But it is very liberating and I think live experience that it’s a very open question that can set the table for very effective partnership.
So, that’s probably enough of a preamble on who we are and what we’re all about. And I’m happy to talk in more detail about anything RHF-related a bit later on or in the follow-up. But I’ll turn now to what I hope are five good ideas or useful ideas that folks around this table can relate to and hopefully take away.
So, the first good idea is form needs to follow function. Now, partnership development across our sector can take many forms and be driven by many kinds of motivations. I spoke about four of the ways in which the Rideau Hall Foundation partners with organizations across the sector. That is not an exhaustive list. I’m sure that across this proverbial room, there’ll be lots of other different kinds of ways of working.
But the point of this idea is that before you jump to a conclusion about what the right form of partnership is, it’s really valuable to start with a conversation about your values and on what’s really important to you and to your partner organization.
I had the good fortune of spending some time last week with Zita Cobb, social entrepreneur extraordinaire from Newfoundland and one of the founding Board Members of the Rideau Hall Foundation. And what she really drove home for me is that the most important thing is to keep the most important thing the most important thing. So, if you say that three times fast, it will begin to sink in. But really, it’s about figuring out what your internal goals are, as well as your shared goals. What the table stakes are for each party. So for each of the partners. What your respective strengths, as well as challenges are. And then design the partnership model that best suits your particular situation.
It’s really important again not to make assumptions about your partner, what their motivations are for partnership, what their capabilities are. And you’re going to hear many different iterations of “don’t assume” throughout the next little while.
The big takeaway on this idea is again not to assume going in that you know what the final shape of the partnership will be. Give yourselves the time and space to create at the outset and to have those critical conversations about what is the most important thing that needs to keep being the most important thing.
I’d like to give just one example to illustrate this from the RHF’s perspective. Early on in the pandemic, we were approached by an organization called the, it’s a mouthful, the Foundations for the Studies and Processes of Government. And FSPG ran a program for about 45 years called a Forum for Young Canadians. I’ll just call it Forum because it’s much easier.
Forum is a program that helps young people, young Canadians learn about the functioning of our democracy, bringing young people to Ottawa to have an experience where they learn from each other, and to learn about how our public institutions work. And it really tried to engender the sense of civic engagement that would last a lifetime.
The pandemic was very challenging for this organization and they were seeking more permanent operational sustainability. At the same time, we at the Rideau Hall Foundation, we’re looking to get behind programs and to back initiatives that were doing exactly what Forum was seeking to do, to grow, and to nurture young leaders who care deeply about the country and who know how to engage with our public institutions.
So, fast-forwarding a little bit, we did have heavy conversations around what their values were, what they were hoping to see emerge from a potential collaboration. And from that, we developed a partnership model that saw Forum move into the Rideau Hall Foundation. The program was essentially gifted to the RHF to take it forward in such a way that continue to prioritize the ongoing involvement of key leaders from that organization in the form of an advisory committee that continue to prioritize the values of Forum, that prioritize the brand as well and just the incredible value behind the brand itself, which was felt to be very important by the board, and which we believed to be important, too.
So, all these factors helped us build a partnership model that ensured continuity and a really smooth transition of this program that’s now able to have a much longer term, more permanent future under the umbrella of the Rideau Hall Foundation. But I wouldn’t have told you at the outset that we would have landed on the merger when we started talking. It was really only through having those important conversations and frank conversations about what we’re looking to achieve and what we valued in order to do so.
From the RHF’s perspective, I think understanding what FSPG, the other organization, valued allowed us to keep their priorities top of mind when we were making decisions about how to move forward. And that built trust. I know I’m fast forwarding to the fifth point on trust but it did build trust and it built a really strong basis of understanding, at which point everything else moves so much more quickly.
So, that’s the first point, really on not rushing to the chase on what form the partnership should take. Take the time to really build the relationship and understand the motivations.
The second good idea that I’d like to speak to is around being open to unconventional arrangements or partners. And this point is really about being again open to experimentation and particularly to different viewpoints. I think many of us have encountered limitations to collaboration within the charitable and nonprofit sector about how organizations can work together, particularly when there’s a flow of funding involved. This is not news to anyone in this room, but registered charities are limited in how they can direct funds to organizations that are not qualified donees.
Now, that’s beginning to change. I think Bill 216 and its amendments to legislation will hopefully make it easier for groups in our sector to collaborate effectively and efficiently and to direct resources wherever the resources need to go. But in the meantime, we’ve been able to develop ways of supporting organizations that are not qualified donees by being a bit creative. It took some time to sort through and it was new to us. But I think it was time really well spent. And we now have a pretty effective model in place to be able to do more of that again by being a bit creative.
One of our signature programs is called Catapult Canada. And it focuses on eliminating barriers to learning for young people across the country. Through the most recent round of programming support, we were able to provide supports to both qualified donees as well as nonqualified donees. And I’m hoping this is something that we can talk more about and share our experience towards.
We also found other ways of working with nonqualified donees including, for instance, supporting the legal fees of a partner organization that was seeking charitable status. And finding other ways to really help to build the capacity and infrastructure of the organizations we’re working with. But maybe those partnerships didn’t look exactly like traditional grants.
There are many other networked organizations on this call and across the country who are doing great work in this space. And I think it’s really important that we’re learning from one another so that we can move forward more quickly as a country and as a sector.
I think it’s really important in this sort of vein to seek out complementarity, as opposed to similarity. Now, I’ll give you one example that’s relevant to the Rideau Hall Foundation’s experience. And it’s about our origin story. So, the Community Foundations of Canada, a separate organization, incubated the Rideau Hall Foundation as it was kind of born. That makes it sound like an alien.
But basically, CFC took it upon themselves as an in-kind contribution to build up the RHF as a separate independent organization. So, CFC has a different mission, different vision than the Rideau Hall Foundation, a different way of working, a different type of culture. And yet, by giving the RHF an early home at a critical time, it helped us to grow and to reach the position that we are today.
That relationship of the RHF being incubated by CFC was never intended to be a permanent ongoing relationship, but it allowed the infrastructure to build while we were able to build up our own resource base of operations. So, the Rideau Hall Foundation is now in the position of providing that similar support, in-kind support, to other organizations.
So, for instance, we provide the back-end administrative capacity for another project, another organization called the Arctic Inspiration Prize as it’s working to build up its own infrastructure and capacity across the North. So, different ways of working. But again, there aren’t that many examples of that across the country. But I think those examples need to be shared so that more of us within the sector can figure out new ways of approaching collaboration.
I think it’s also really important to not assume that things have to be done the way they’ve been done before, either by your organization or by others. One of the resources that I pointed to in my handout is a book by Adam Kahane called Collaborating with the Enemy. And it sounds super negative but it’s really not. I found it to be a really, really interesting read that was more about how you think about your own values, how you articulate those values, and how you approach different ways of coming to consensus.
So, it really sets aside a hierarchical top-down approach to decision-making in favour of a shift to more collaborative thinking and working and to opening yourself up to different viewpoints and how doing so will inevitably lead to more innovative outcomes.
The third point I want to speak to is that people matter. And maybe this is obvious, particularly in the sector, but I think it’s worth spending a little bit of time on. So, yes, the partnership that we’re talking about, the types of partnerships are between organizations, but people and the relationships between those people are the critical glue and I think enabler of success.
Now, partnerships take time and attention. Genuine relationships cannot be fast-tracked and cannot be transactional. This is a sector that’s driven by passion and heart. So, again, this may very well be obvious, but I think it’s worth reiterating. And I think it’s something that other sectors can learn from.
I think it’s also important not to assume that the will or mission of an organization will win out over the people putting the good ideas and partnerships into motion. So, the people across our teams are our most important ambassadors and most valuable resource. And partnership development can be hard. It can be exhausting.
So, as a leader, if you’re asking people to be innovative and asking them to stretch and figure out new ways of doing things that haven’t been done before and to put others first, I mean it’s a lot to ask of people. It can be very energizing. But if the people who are at the forefront of partnership development are not engaged or invested, it’s just not going to work.
I think it’s really staying on the theme of people. It’s important to be really invested in the success of your partners and authentically so. So, I want to talk about someone on my team whose name is Sabrina Marques, no relation. But Sabrina leads a program called Canadian Innovation Week, which takes place every May. So, it’s coming up around the corner between May 16th and 20th this year.
And it’s an opportunity that the RHF has developed to shine a spotlight on innovative work that’s happening all across the country over a concerted period of time by all sectors. So, it’s a program that’s grown year-over-year as the CIW platform has evolved. So, we’re constantly thinking about how can we make sure that what we’re offering will be of great value to our partners? How can we be curious and excited about our partners’ successes?
Now, Sabrina is the face of this program. And her interactions with each and every partner are personal. And just the enthusiasm she brings when she learns about what someone else is doing and how they’re growing and how they’re innovating is just a real inspiration for our team. And it’s an approach that I’m trying to take into my day-to-day life because it’s just a happier way to be.
I also want to talk very briefly about someone else on my team who I’m learning a lot from. And his name is Bill Mintram. So, Bill is our Director of Indigenous and Northern Relations. And Bill and I work closely on many programs. And he has shared with me and helped me learn that partnerships with Indigenous organizations in particular can take a different approach that relationships really matter and that they take time.
The Rideau Hall Foundation is a non-Indigenous-led organization, but we’re an organization that is very much committed to learning from Indigenous leadership, as well as to reconciliation in Canada. I’ve learned from Bill in particular that partnership development with Indigenous organizations again might look different. It might not be linear. But this different worldview, in fact, I think leads to stronger partnerships that are centred and really anchored on relationships. And I think that’s a valuable principle that holds for partnership development with Indigenous communities and organizations, as well as in non-Indigenous context.
And the fourth idea that I’d like to share. So, people matter, yes. Details also matter. So, this is really about figuring out your parametres for decision making, as well as your accountabilities and timelines including the sunset period for each partnership that you’re developing and to write them all down. Plan ahead for moments to evaluate how the thing is working and have those moments be almost cyclical so that you’re not just evaluating things or realizing, “Hey, it’s worth looking at this,” when things are going south because it will be much harder to do.
So, really just taking the time to write down the details because details do matter and they can provide that kind of overarching framework that can then allow for the creativity and the flexibility and being agile. Plan for anticipated, as well as unanticipated costs. So, the turnover of people, expanded project scope, the fact that there’s a global pandemic happening, things that you might not have been able to anticipate when you built the initial partnership. And think ahead about financial management.
There’s a poet named … I can’t remember his first name but Machado is his last name. And I believe he’s Portuguese. And it’s that, “There is no path. The path is made by walking.” And I think that’s really true and resonant when it comes to working in partnership. There are some cases where you have to do it to understand what it’s going to be. And that is not very eloquent but I think that’s the sort of gist of what Machado was getting at.
So, related to the details being important, I think it’s important to not assume that a lack of clarity equates being innovative or flexible. If you have a clear framework, it will ultimately allow you the space to do the good work since you’ve cut down on the unknowns and the misunderstandings which will inevitably come up from the get go.
This really comes down to the strength of governance that’s in place and how it can be a critical enabler that can actually help you to act in ways that are nimble, agile, and responsive if you’ve thought ahead about kind of what that decision-making framework should look like.
So, in thinking about a relevant example with the Rideau Hall foundation, I would point to a program that we work in partnership with called the Michener Awards Foundation. So, the Michener Awards again are a separate organization named in honour of former Governor General Roland Michener. And really, they exist to celebrate and shine a light on public service journalism in the country. So, very much a strong alignment of values with the work and mission of the Rideau Hall Foundation. And we were very much interested in getting behind the work that they were doing and seeing how we could provide the organization with greater sustainability and greater capacity and infrastructure.
So, unlike Forum, where we figured it out and we just merged — it became a more permanent fixed relationship –, with the Michener Awards Foundation, we actually said, “Okay, well, let’s walk before we run.” So, we set a timeframe on our partnership of a two-year period to test it out to get to know each other, just to understand how we might work in collaboration. And then there’s a built-in moment to take the time to step aside, see how it’s going and then either renew or deepen or change in whatever way we think both makes sense.
So, that felt … I mean, it not only felt like the right thing to do, it felt like a great way to minimize risk on all sides just to give us that set period that was enough of a timeframe to meaningfully work together without asking anyone to overcommit to something they weren’t necessarily comfortable with.
So, the last good idea is around trust and trust mattering most. You will be able to move more quickly and to go farther together if there’s trust and open communication between partners. So really, I can’t really emphasize this enough, but just the importance of investing early in a culture of trust within your partnership. So, how do you do that? Well, you do what you said you’re going to do. You act in ways that are honest and open. You have a commitment to transparency. You over-communicate, especially on sticky issues.
And I think it’s also important in this piece to not assume that one partner holds all the cards or all the risks, that you know what the other partner is thinking or what’s driving them or what their experience has been. I’ll also say that I think trust goes both ways. And it’s really important to recognize that, especially when the power dynamic is a big issue.
I know we’re talking about partnerships across the sector. But when you’re thinking about power dynamics even within the charitable or nonprofit sector, issues like funder and recipients and the power dynamic between that types of partnership can emerge.
Now, there’s historically been an emphasis on the risk being absorbed by the funder in any kind of granting relationship. But recipients of funding are equally taking on risks and accepting funds from any contributor. So, they need to trust the funder as they’re also hitching their wagon and reputation to the values of that funder.
So all to say, I mean I think setting the groundwork with strong channels for communication, having a commitment to transparency and a willingness to be vulnerable and speak clearly to your organizational successes, strengths, and challenges helps to level the playing field and create the foundation of trust. So that when those inevitable bumps in the road do come up, you have already set the stage for grace and for resolution.
So, we take time with the RHF to talk about partnership a lot. What’s working? What isn’t working? How we can be better partners? And time and time again, trust is always a hallmark characteristic of partnerships that are working really, really well.
So, I’ve talked about the five. I snuck in a sixth at the outset which is to be vulnerable. And I’m going to sneak in a seventh very quickly before I turn it back to you, Elizabeth. And it’s just to again think about the end of the partnership as well. So again, I use the Michener example as one piece that had an explicit timeline horizon.
But more deeply than that, I think the example between the Community Foundations of Canada incubating the Rideau Hall Foundation and planning for a very successful end of that relationship made such a huge difference to our ability to maintain a great relationship between the RHF and CFC today and to just make sure that that happened in a way that was really, really smooth. We consciously uncoupled before it was cool.
I became CEO of the Rideau Hall Foundation just at the tail end of that period. And I can see now in retrospect how thoughtfully it was done in a way that really set us up for success. There are other examples that I can speak to maybe over the conversation around partnerships that we had to exit more abruptly. And sometimes those come with their own risk elements and are disrupting, but happy to go into more detail on that piece as well.
So, I’ll also say we have big challenges that are complex ahead of us around climate, food security, inclusion, shifting geopolitical realities, and widening gaps and access to opportunity. These challenges are going to require complex and new solutions. And they’re going to require us to find new ways of collaborating and working together. Problems can only be solved by working together and by changing the nature of how we do so.
So, I just want to thank you all for the work that you’re doing in the sector and for taking the time to learn about some of my thoughts. And I’m really hopeful that we can now surface reactions that you have and to hear from your experience as well. So, thank you. And Elizabeth, with that, I’ll turn back to you.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Thank you. That was remarkable. I’ve done a lot of work on collaboration and partnership and I’ve never heard it all brought together so thoughtfully and in a really useful and manageable framework. So, thank you. And I think you’ve hit a chord with the audience with your quote from Antonio Machado. So, lots of applause for that.
We have a number of questions already coming in. And I’m going to comment on some of this stuff as we go through. I’ll turn to the questions first and then I’ll use my prerogative when I get a chance. Right out of the gate, we have a question. What about a potential partnership, in quotes, with an organization who may be viewed as a competitor in terms of attention, funding, staff, resources to advance work in a similar area?
And many years ago, I worked in a project where I think it was Mario Calla from Costi called it “co-opetition,” and the art and science of doing that. So the question is, any thoughts about how to navigate requests from such a potential partner to work together to ensure mutual value rather than favouring one organization over another?
Teresa Marques: Yeah. It’s a great and very real kind of question. So, it relates to one of my, I don’t know what, one or two, but just focusing on complementarity as opposed to similarity just because things can be a bit less fuzzy when you do so. But I think also, I think it’s a bit of a misnomer to think that resources in the sector are finite. I think that there is room for all of us.
And when you are partnering with an organization, if your primary focus remains like the thing that you’re both trying to achieve as a starting point and then again building the right framework for partnership around that thing that is your shared interest, it’s a great kind of North Star and can be the piece that helps to cut away some of that noise. I think that the greater the trust relationship, the greater the transparency, the greater the communication, the more that you can actually celebrate the successes of your partners as opposed to coming at it from that sort of deficit or competitive mindset.
Way easier said than done, I recognize that. But I don’t know if, Elizabeth, if you have other reactions or thoughts to that question.
Elizabeth McIsaac: I think it’s a hugely important question because I think if the sector is going to deliver on its mission and really accelerate impact, it’s going to take some of those sometimes compromising relationships and partnerships in order to do that to raise it up. And I think just an extra element is sometimes needing to park the organizational ego and focus on who is the constituency. “What are you trying to achieve?”
And sometimes that refocus can help prioritize and, “Where are the shared values?” and “Where is the shared goal?” And really articulating that shared goal and keeping that front and centre. And I think that was your very first point. What’s important in keeping that front and centre?
Here’s another layer to it, but perhaps with a bit more stuff involved. How do you navigate a relationship with multiple partners who have had conflicts with each other in the past? History.
Teresa Marques: Yeah. What do you do at the Christmas table when all the family is coming together and you have to keep the peace? So, I don’t know that there’s one answer to that question. Again, I think from our perspective, it’s been really helpful for the partnerships that we’ve engaged in that we can bring sort of a neutrality to the space. And that neutrality can help to encourage people to park the ego a little bit.
So, really trying to model and emphasize celebrating each other’s successes. And not being rooted in the past has been a practical way forward from our perspective. But again, these are not easy questions. They don’t have necessarily super obvious answers. I think again, just really open collaboration. I think talking about what didn’t go right in the past, too, is key. I think that if there are wounds that have taken place or that history that is troubling between organizations that you’re trying to either bring together or work through, it’s really hard to pretend that didn’t happen.
I think it comes down to that starting point at the beginning of a partnership development as you’re thinking about what are the table stakes? What didn’t work well before? How can we make sure that that doesn’t happen again? And being as transparent and frank as possible at that starting point. And then moving forward, if things start to go south, so if problems begin to emerge again, calling those problems, being open about those problems as opposed to letting them fester as you would in like any healthy relationship with a family member or a partner.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Exactly. And I think that it also taps back into a number of your points that you made. It’s people matter, details matter, having that transparency, building the trust. Recently, we are in an early conversation of a partnership with an organization and the Indigenous lead said, “Well, let’s move at the pace of trust.” So, I give credit to that concept to Conrad Prince who’s doing the reconciliation project at Save the Children.
It’s a really profound framing, “We’ll go as fast as we can and we need to get the essentials down first.” It’s a good parametre. A couple of practical questions about doing partnership and funding relationships. So, Doreen asks, “First, thank you, Teresa. In one of your examples, you mentioned the importance of having a contingency plan, would you advocate for including contingency funding in grants?”
Teresa Marques: So, it’s a great question. I’m not as well-versed, frankly, in best practices related to grant-making. So, I don’t want to speak for those who might be better positioned to do so. Our approach when it comes to the grants that we’re getting behind at the Rideau Hall Foundation is to be pretty flexible. And just to acknowledge that the organizations that we’re supporting are closest to the work, closest to the priorities that need to happen, and need operational funding support that is sustainable.
So, those are some of the priorities and the values that we try to put at the forefront of any granting relationship that we develop. And we also try to do so in a way that’s collaborative with the person or the organization that we’re issuing the funding to. So, working with that partner organization to figure out what is the right spectrum of pieces of the puzzle that need to be worked into this collaboration agreement or this funding agreement.
I don’t want to suggest that I’m an expert in that particular space. But again, it’s really leading with trust in thinking about our working relationship with those we are issuing grants to and trying to just stay true to that trust-based philanthropic priority.
Elizabeth McIsaac: A little bit different but kind of related, any thoughts on where a small nonprofit could find external help, support, and guidance to explore and enter partnerships in a systematic and efficient way?
Teresa Marques: Yeah, it’s a great question. I wish there were more conversations like this happening at scale across the country. So, it depends where you are in the country. I think MakeWay is doing some really interesting work in terms of providing that scalable solution and platform for nonprofits, helping to build capacity, and provide some of that backend infrastructure as a nonprofit working towards more permanent charitable status.
I think Imagine Canada is doing some interesting work in this space, too. I’m happy to follow up with anyone on this call or directly for our experiences at the Rideau Hall Foundation and the networks that we’ve become part of related to work in innovation, in learning, in giving, in volunteerism or in, I always forget the last one, leadership. In any one of those spaces, we’re happy to connect one-on-one for another conversation about where we might be able to facilitate some introductions.
There aren’t enough broad networks that I think I’m really committed to the idea that I recognize that we have this kind of vantage point or perspective on what’s happening across the country. And I’d love to be able to help foster some connections for folks on this call as well.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Terrific, thank you. You spoke about risk. And I think there’s risk in every relationship, partnership collaboration. How do you deal with the liability piece when you have a partner? So, for example, organization A does something that brings negative attention and/or financial liability to organization B. So, I guess this is a little bit of, now things are going sideways or south.
Teresa Marques: I mean, to the extent possible early on, you need to plan for what those risks might be and try to anticipate what might go wrong. And then, there are broad ranges of risk from legal to insurance to reputational to financial. So, even doing enterprise-wide risk-management can be all-encompassing.
And it can take up all of your time, but it can also be done sort of simply and more intuitively. And so, a practice that we engage with at the Rideau Hall Foundation is to surface on a pretty regular basis, let’s just take stock of how are we thinking about risk across the organization and across our partnerships? And do we need to do anything differently? So, we’re always just trying to keep a bit of a watchful eye on how things change because we know things will change over time.
So, one example that I can speak to really quickly, and I can name names without worrying, is a partnership that we engaged in a couple years back — I’ll try to keep this a short story — with a global program called Pitch@Palace. And we felt like it had all the right things in it. So, it was a program that was supporting young entrepreneurs across the country. It was taking place in 60 countries. It was a pitch competition for entrepreneurs that help connect entrepreneurs across the country to investors and to new opportunities.
So, it had innovation. It had youth. It had national scale. And it had celebrating excellence in Canada. It wasn’t happening in Canada. So, we entered into a partnership with the organization that ran Pitch@Palace to actually bring it to Canada. It was a great success. We planned for how we roll this out in six different cities coast to coast to coast. And we learned a lot about really excellent entrepreneurs. And we were able to connect those entrepreneurs to funders.
The reason it fell apart, frankly, and I’m being very just direct here, is the figurehead of the program. It was founded by Prince Andrew, the Duke of York. And this was circa 2017 or ’18 or so, just before everything went south in that way. And so, when I was thinking through the risks to this program, it was not that that there’d be this major reputational piece that was just like a deal breaker for us.
It was difficult because the mechanics of the program were so good and the bones of it were great. And so, it felt like a real loss at the end of the day to not be able to continue with it. But you just reached this point where you know that you need to walk away. And that became a clear question. I mean, there was the objective analysis that we had done. And then there was the gut, “Our values are not syncing up here.” And we actually stepped away from the program and cut ties more publicly, which is why I feel comfortable saying it out loud in this intimate room of 157 people.
Elizabeth McIsaac: And being posted later on the website.
No, that’s I think hugely important because there are times when it has to be public. There are clear lines that you can’t cross. And it’s important for your own reputational integrity that you’re out in front before it happens.
The flip side of it. When you’ve had a successful partnership, how do you measure it? I mean, we’re obsessed with measuring everything. Do you need to measure it? Can you just know that it was successful because X, Y, and Z was accomplished? Or is there a due diligence around measuring the success or a failure of the partnership?
Teresa Marques: Yeah, I think that there is. I think it’s always worth taking that time to evaluate although I totally agree. I mean, sometimes evaluation and measurement can just become … It’s like ad nauseam and you spend all your time evaluating, not your time doing the thing itself. That being said, as much as it’s important not to only evaluate when things are going wrong, you want to evaluate when things are going right as well.
So, I think for all sorts of reasons, it’s worth taking the time to build in that opportunity just to take a step back and take stock of what you’ve done together and to figure out how you can talk about it publicly. I mean, I think we’re all looking for ways to learn from each other. I think it would benefit the broader sector to hear about partnerships that are working effectively.
I think often there’s a definite sort of funder dynamic to this as well. And sharing the successes of partnership can also be helpful in that regard in terms of profiling and starting a bit of a spotlight on what’s working really well. So, I don’t know if that answers the question but, yes, I do think it’s worth putting in some systemic way or systematizing measuring progress, but without letting it completely bog you down.
I also think that … I wanted to work this in and I didn’t get a chance to so I’ll say it now. But I think a partnership can be successful even if the thing itself was not successful. So, you and your partner organization may design a collaborative model to do a certain thing. And you’re innovating and you’re trying and you’re both putting skin in the game. And you’re both putting resources in and your best efforts and you trust each other and you’ve tried something new and it doesn’t work.
That’s going to happen sometimes. Just because the thing itself doesn’t happen the way you thought or hoped it would is not necessarily the measure of whether it was a good partnership or not. So, I think it’s really important to think about assessing the partnership as well as the outcome that you were hoping to achieve together.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Oftentimes, the relationship may produce and reinvent itself. And the longer trajectory of that is way beyond the line of sight of any evaluation.
Teresa Marques: Totally, yeah.
Elizabeth McIsaac: It could be 10-15 years down the road. And when you go back to the origin of how it all started, there are these other things that happened that built a really strong foundation of relationship.
Teresa Marques: Or you might do something else together down the road in a different context.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Yup. The seeds of it reside there. I think this is an interesting question: What does leadership look like in a collaborative environment? Now, there’s all kinds of models of leadership. What are your thoughts on what kinds of leadership models work well?
Teresa Marques: That’s a big question. We could probably spend like a whole next five ideas on that question alone. I’ll go back to one of the concepts I mentioned earlier that I think this notion of top-down leadership, it’s really control-and-command, is super outdated and is not part of the culture of building collaborative partnerships. There’s not a space for it or place for it in collaborative partnerships.
So, I think as a leader myself, I’m trying to always set the table to bring forward others’ ideas and to try to serve. It’s like I came into this conversation. I’m not the expert in this area. And so, if I can create the space and conversation to lift up others and to give voice to others, I think that’s an approach that bodes well in any kind of collaborative partnership approach. I really feel strongly that that sort of the old power principle around control and command leadership is not the way forward and it doesn’t have a space or role to play in building healthy partnerships. And again, that is also replicated in life.
Elizabeth McIsaac: But it contradicts some of your key ideas around trust, vulnerability, and those kinds of core pieces that lead to strong partnerships. I want to follow up with Doreen’s question around contingency funding. Somebody responded to that in the Q&A, so just to share to everyone. This is from Barry Waldman. “I’ve found that most funders are uncomfortable with contingency funding, per se, because it provides no assurance of impact. If you can break down the nature of the contingencies, that’s easier for their funder to trust.”
So, I think that’s a good piece of advice. Thank you, Barry. We have another question. This is, “We’re an intermediary organization trying to promote multiple organizations to collaborate on a project. Do you have any insights or recommendations on navigating the power imbalance between big and small, to ensure that everyone has a voice at the table?” So, we talked about the power differential and money but what about size which is also sometimes money?
Teresa Marques: And I think, yeah, these things are related I think. I think as an intermediary, you’re in a really interesting position and have a really great opportunity to sort of level the playing field for the different partners you’re working with. So, I think the onus will be on you as the intermediary organization to help lift up, make sure that each of the partners that you’re either receiving funding from or giving funding to have equal voice at the table.
But that you’re the one who’s setting the stage for the dance to happen. And so, I think you do have a great opportunity and ability to make sure that you’re giving space and voice and spotlight to each of those organizations no matter what their kind of sizes. And the fact that you’re an intermediary, maybe it positions you in a way that is a bit more neutral in that regard to be able to set that table appropriately.
Elizabeth McIsaac: And I think that that’s a good segue to this other question which is, “Is there a maximum number of partners you can have before it becomes untenable, too many cooks in the kitchen? And is it really about how you set the table?” And back to your very first point, form follows function and just designing to the complexity of the partnerships.
Teresa Marques: Yeah, it’s such a great question because I think you can imagine the number, the right number, but then each of the things, each of the partnerships itself will have its own lifespan and may evolve and may grow and become more complex than you anticipated. So, it’s both the right number of partners to be working with and then the right size of the things that those partners are working on, if you will.
It’s a tough balance to get right. I don’t have that figured out yet but it’s something that we’re constantly looking at because there are so many great initiatives and opportunities that are out there. I mean, I think with our team, we know when it feels like too much. And we try to follow the instincts of the team in terms of what it is feeling like we’re kind of reaching capacity and stretch.
And then when we are at that stretch point, we figure out, “Okay, if we take on more, what needs to change? Is something else winding down? Or can we bring on additional capacity?” And then sometimes it goes down to where you have to say no or where you can maybe help to redirect. So, “Say No,” I think, was another one of the resources. “A Good No” was another one of the resources that I either put on the list or was going to and I can’t remember now.
But there’s a great HBR piece that I found pretty valuable in terms of like smart no’s when you just don’t look at the capacity despite your best interest and your best effort to get involved. I’m not sure if that was helpful.
Elizabeth McIsaac: I think it was. Now, I’d just sort of add to that. I mean, I think feeling comfortable to step back and say, “If we want to do that, we have to change,” and being prepared to redesign in process. If we want to go there, then this is what has to be put in place. And it’s okay to change track.
Teresa Marques: Yes, absolutely. It’s kind of weird not to change track. In fact, given just how partnerships unfold. There are always going to be evolutions that you need to be able to respond to and figure out how you will make decisions together with your partner when those eventual pieces change.
Elizabeth McIsaac: There’s one last question because we’re at 1:56 but I think we’ve got time to slip one more in. This is from Shannon. “We are a funding organization. Do you have any suggestions on building relationships when our organization’s members, the people have limited appointment terms?” So, turnover, how do you manage that?
Teresa Marques: Yeah, it’s tricky. I mean, I think there is sort of an institutional memory that needs to be developed at the organization. And I know it runs counter to what I earlier said around that people are the most important. It’s like, yes, these relationships like Sabrina on our team is absolutely the face and is building these relationships across the country and supported this initiative we have called Canadian Innovation Week.
But how do we help ensure that what she is learning and surfacing becomes institutional knowledge and builds the bank of our own corporate memory. So, that’s a bit of infrastructure that needs to be built on the inside to make sure that we’re not losing the great intelligence and learnings that she’s been able to surface.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Lots of people putting stuff in the chat as well. So, thank you for that. Thank you to everyone who’s engaging in different ways. I’m watching the three different columns to see where stuff is coming in which means that it’s a sign of a great conversation. Thank you, Teresa, for an incredible conversation. I think I’m hearing all kinds of applause in the chat room.
But it’s been a really helpful and thoughtful set of comments and responses and insights to what’s clearly a lot of really great experience in your back pocket. I want to also say thank you to our audience, really engaged, lots of insight, lots of experience. Thank you for being here. Everyone is busy so we really appreciate the time that you’ve taken to join us.