(image via Derek Beres)
[written for the Design with Dialogue blog]
Despite being held at 6pm in the middle of the workweek, the monthly Design with Dialogue meet-up, now in it’s fifth year, has established quite a steady following. March’s topic ‘What is the True Nature of Partnerships’ led by Mary Pickering of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund attracted 30 or so individuals eager to engage as both listeners and contributors in authentic dialogue. The session was rich with insights. Here are my top take-aways around contracts, money and forces.
CONTRACTS ARE USEFUL FOR THE PROCESS
Drawing up a letter of intent, contract, or, in the case of a romantic partnership, a prenuptial agreement, is helpful because it forces us to go through the motions of discussing what assets exist, what our strengths are and how we can be fair with each other. However, if the partnership gets to the point where this agreement needs to be used, it often means a deeper betrayal occurred at some point and this issue(s) needs to be resolved before the partnership can be resumed. This highlights the need to think about succession and exit planning (less so for romantic partnerships of course) during the early stages of the partnership and to be very up front about timelines and needs.
MONEY DOESN’T EQUAL SKIN IN THE GAME
Contributing money doesn’t equal a true 'buy-in' (i.e., partnership) because one's personal value of money is weighted by how much you have in your purse. Mary explains that one of the fundamentals of true partnerships is that all parties “have skin in the game”, ie. contribute and incur risk by agreeing to engage. However, with agreements where power is imbalanced, such as those between investor and entrepreneur or music label and musician, it can be difficult to decipher whether an offer to engage is a transaction or a partnership. The intention of the engagement and level of commitment is the difference between a transaction (purely a business exchange, short-term in nature, and often a one-time deal) and a partnership (founded on reciprocity, cooperation and mutual growth and often long-term). These semantics are important because they have very different implications when things don’t go according to plan (and they never do). Simply bringing money to the table does not guarantee commitment, so how can we better neutralize these imbalances?
FORCES ARE WORKING AGAINST THE PARTNERSHIP
Forming partnerships can be hard enough, and, once formed, there are also forces working to pull them apart. Personal responsibilities, job requirements and navigating hiccups across projects all compete for our mental-bandwidth; thus, limiting the attention we can give to nurturing partnerships. Much like an untended garden that becomes overrun with weeds over time, unmaintained partnerships can take you steps backwards by growing once small nuisances into much larger issues or causing strain to relationships. Partnerships, like living organisms, need ongoing TLC to thrive.
In the social innovation context, we are acutely aware that our complex systemic challenges (such as homelessness, income inequalities or climate change) cannot be solved in siloes. The growing need for cross-sector, cross-disciplinary collaboration to tackle these challenges amplifies the need for individuals skilled at managing and brokering partnerships. For more information about the process Mary described during the session, visit the Partnership Brokers Association website.