Think Beyond Staff, Part 2: Leverage Capacity of External Partners
How can you effectively engage the expertise and bandwidth of external partners, decreasing the need to grow your own organizational footprint?
Scaling your impact is not just about growing your own organizational footprint. As Health Care Without Harm works to build a movement — rather than scale a specific intervention — it has intentionally stayed lean and drawn on the expertise of partners from across its network. Founder Gary Cohen stated, “You don’t need to grow as a huge organization. You just have to find the strategic levers around you.” Leveraging outside entities (formal partners, key stakeholders) can be challenging but can also help accelerate change at a faster pace and with less financial resources than going it alone. Regardless of your sector of work or geographic focus, there are institutions and individuals within the ecosystem who are being paid (by others!) to conduct work that aligns with yours. Scaling organizations must ask themselves which areas of expertise and influence can be leveraged from outside the organization — minimizing the need to grow the organization’s own size yet still expanding its reach and impact.
Advice from the field:
1. Identify stakeholders with aligned interests.
By taking the time to map your ecosystem, it is possible to identify organizations and specific roles within those organizations that have aligned interests. Those individuals and teams may then be able to bring their expertise and capacity to help further your work — as partners rather than employees. Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) recognized that there were many experts within the healthcare ecosystem who were motivated — as part of their jobs — to maximize positive outcomes related in some way to environmental health. To influence hospitals to stop buying meat from animals that had been treated with antibiotics, HCWH engaged hospital food service leadership and the physicians rallying around antibiotic resistance and empowered them to advocate for changes within hospital food procurement. In support of this effort, HCWH organized a Market Transformation Group of committed hospital systems to share progress and strategies, convened supply chain and food service companies to discuss standards with the hospital partners, and incorporated a goal within its membership community of committed health care organizations (i.e., Practice Greenhealth) so that hospitals could track progress and benchmark against other hospitals within the membership base. [For more on HCWH’s scaling story, read their Scaling Snapshot starting here].
Jagdeesh Rao, CEO of Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) credits the impact his organization has achieved to thinking of itself as an “ecosystem organization” that identifies aligned partners with whom FES can collaborate to transform an entire system. For example, one of FES’ objectives is to improve local decision making by promoting an exchange between local and external knowledge and best practices in agriculture and farming that will increase incomes and improve outputs. Rather than develop its own in-house research team, FES specifically chose to “piggy-back” on the work of think-tanks, such as the International Food Policy Research Institute, that were already generating this knowledge but struggling to get it into the hands of those who could best leverage it. FES instead focuses on developing delivery mechanisms to ensure that knowledge can be mobilized in villages through another set of aligned partnerships with village-based NGOs.
2. Find ways to ease barriers to entry and create early wins.
Consider any barriers to partnership that might exist, including defensiveness about past practices, lack of knowledge about new approaches, or lack of data to convince decision-makers. For example, one of HCWH’s first targets was ridding hospitals of two environmental pollutants: toxic mercury (commonly found in thermometers) and incinerators with harmful dioxin emissions. In approaching hospital partners, HCWH took care not to blame or shame the hospitals for still engaging in those practices but instead used the opportunity to bring new science to bear and offer a second opinion — ensuring that the hospitals would not be put on the defensive. HCWH also made it easy for its partners by providing data on the benefits of alternatives (including potential cost savings, volume reduction, and environmental and health benefits), making helpful connections, and outlining concrete steps that led to initial small wins. Given the success and trust that was built, the partners eagerly asked, “What’s next?” leading to the development of a broader sustainability agenda around chemicals, purchasing, water, food, and more.
“We see our role as creating the tent, setting the table, and empowering others as a way to leverage skills and talent that we ourselves do not need to pay for.” — Gary Cohen, President and Founder of Health Care Without Harm
3. Formalize structures to effectively collaborate with partners.
Kevin Trapani, Co-Founder and CEO of B Corporation The Redwoods Group, advises that social enterprises must be intentional about managing external collaborators. “In my experience, social enterprises commonly underestimate the time and effort required to effectively collaborate with partners. These relationships will be most effective if there is clarity around shared goals, structures put in place to ensure continued alignment and progress, and clear ways to communicate, make decisions, change course, and hold each other accountable. Without this active and thoughtful management, partnerships are doomed to be deprioritized or fall to the back burner.” This means dedicating time and staff and may even involve formal reporting structures. Health Care Without Harm has created a membership organization, Practice Greenhealth, which provides a platform for its health care sector champions to collaborate, share innovations and best practices, benchmark against each other, aggregate demand for changes, and seize opportunities for collective impact (e.g., getting hospitals to join the Health Care Climate Challenge). HCWH serves as the “backbone organization” of Practice Greenhealth, providing data, making connections, disseminating knowledge, and building buy-in and ownership from all members.
Additional Resources: Managing Partners Effectively
Managing external partners is complex and depends on the types of partnerships that you are trying to build. Fortunately, there are resources available to help guide the partnership process:
4. Recognize the characteristics required of internal staff to effectively leverage partners.
Gary Cohen of HCWH points out that managing partners is often more akin to the role of a community organizer, where the role is to “build citizen power” outside of the organization as opposed to managing outcomes. The mindset of an organizer can be quite different than that of a traditional manager; for an organizer, critical roles and skills will include relationship management, training, adaptive leadership, and an ability to influence, align, and build a shared vision. FES has needed to support its teams in developing the skills to be able to work with partners in an empowered way. For FES, the most common reason that partnerships in their context fail is ego, says Rao. “It is a cultural shift we are working on to ensure all FES staff have the skills to work effectively with partners according to our vision. This requires us to worry less about whether our logo or name is attached to something and instead let the partner be the leader and be celebrated for successes. Humility in working with partners comes through in every interaction, from how we answer the phone to how quickly we respond. We are working with staff formally and informally to support them in developing these skills.”
Do’s and Don’ts of Leveraging Capacity of External Partners
This article was written by Erin Worsham, Kimberly Langsam, and Ellen Martin, and released in July 2019.