Last week, my son turned 18 months old. This may not seem significant, but my partner and I are celebrating. We have reached this milestone together by navigating some frustrating times, changing roles, shifting strategies, emergency middle-of-the-night meetings and lots (and lots) of diaper cream. We found that our partnership requires adaptability, reflection and planning in the midst of all the doing. Otherwise, we would be in a constant state of short-sighted and reactionary decision-making.
At Active Living By Design (ALBD), staff have the opportunity to work with and coach community leaders to “raise” new partnerships in much the same way. Across the country, new leaders and partnerships are forming in response to social or environmental injustices, inequitable access to healthy food and physical activity options and/or other health disparities. New relationships, objectives and roles are continuously taking shape. Addressing the complexities of these multiple dynamics is important. While many community leaders have participated in successful partnerships, they may find that what worked in one partnership doesn’t necessarily work for another. Unfortunately, there is not a “best model” or cookie-cutter guide for how to structure these groups. It’s important to account for the specific complexities and context of a community in order to create the right fit for the people involved.
In 2012, my colleagues wrote an article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine about the roles and structures of different partnership models that can help create community change. In the article, they collected data from dozens of partnerships and identified some of the most important qualities of leaders who successfully manage these types of coalitions. Those include:
These types of facilitative management skills are vital for new partnerships, fledgling organizations and growing families like mine!
New groups also have to manage expectations. This may mean staying realistic about what’s achievable in the beginning before biting off too much. While optimism and a desire to create systems change is essential for community leaders, it takes time, the right people and proper cultivation. Small steps can make the process feel slow, but those incremental actions still show progress and build early momentum. This may come in the form of short-term planning wins (like deciding on an area of focus or talking with decision makers) and/or small accomplishments (like submitting a grant or drafting a policy). Progress like this gives partnerships the opportunity to build on early successes.
I’m impressed by leaders who are forming new partnerships for the same reason that I’m impressed by new parents: they both require a healthy dose of faith and flexibility. And in both cases, their collective vision and goals impact people far into the future. Despite the challenging and often tiresome work, we continue to partner with others because the result—whether it is raising a healthy child or creating a healthy community—is always worth the effort!