Rethinking partnerships at the root


Clare Winterton and Ruby Johnson


Change doesn’t happen alone. It is our collective work that brings joy, lasting impact and relationships. Yet although partnerships are a hot topic in philanthropy and in the nonprofit sector, they can all too often bring great challenges: competing agendas, power struggles and lack of agreement about strategic direction. As leaders in feminist organizations who greatly value collective work, we want to share some of our experiences from the Rootslab partnership – a collaboration of FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund, Global Fund for Women, Oxfam and the Young Foundation. With RootsLab, a four-partner project to propel social innovation by young feminists, we’ve challenged ourselves to innovate a more feminist model for partnerships. Mirroring the spirit of the young feminists we’re supporting in the project, we’ve had the chance to learn, be inspired and to test ourselves. While we’re still on a learning journey, we think we’ve identified some early lessons that might help all of us as we scale up our commitments to partnerships and collaborations for social change.

1. Meaningful collaboration takes time and it is critical to have patience and trust. From the beginning of the RootsLab journey it was clear that in depth time together (largely virtual but sometimes in person) would become the glue for our ongoing co-creation of RootsLab. This time together has seeded trust, which has made us feel more accountable to the partnership. We’re beginning to forge a culture and set of norms for RootsLab that draws on our four organisations, but yet is tangibly different – and fit for this partnership.

2. Flexibility and experimentation is critical. Early on we learned that design thinking – seeded by a pro bono workshop from IDEO – supported and fueled our collective creative energy. Under the leadership of Rania Eghnatios, a feminist activist and our local RootsLab Lebanon coordinator, we’ve made efforts to preserve that creative spirit as the partnership evolves, making sure it is now driven by the young feminist innovators the project exists to support. For example, we extended the project timeline to recognize that young feminists’ solutions are collective. We’ve recognized that building innovation based on flexibility, solidarity and mutual support – rather than individual leadership, linear progress or ‘competition’ – takes time.

The same spirit of flexibility, creativity and learning infuses our partnership. Our global project coordinator, Emily Brown, has ensured that we reflect and learn as we go, scheduling dedicated brainstorm time to reflect on questions like ‘what does feminist social innovation look like?”. When things change or ‘go wrong’, we tweak and modify.

3. Be open to tough conversations. We’ve learned to give and receive challenging feedback to make the partnership better. As in any big project, there have been flashpoints, sensitivities and disagreements. Issues of power – related to the sizes, remits and financial resources of the different partners – have come up. We’ve learned that conversations about money are a particular trigger for these issues, and that early, in-person dialogue about budgets is essential to the health of our partnership.

4. Joy and Gratitude are essential. Being generous, sharing gratitude and having fun have been essential to sustaining a vibrant partnership. We’ve all tried to be intentional about recognizing and appreciating each other’s talents, successes and contributions, and tried to create moments for inspiration and fun – like the five minutes at the beginning of our monthly Steering Group calls set-aside specifically for sharing personal news and inspiration.

5. Clarity in politics and shared values can be your compass. We are in many ways similar but also very different organizations and people. It is no secret that our organizational styles – in particular, in how we make decisions – are very different. We had not worked together extensively – or in some cases at all – before. What made a difference is that we took the time to agree on the key principles of the partnership and create spaces for healthy debate. We all have deep respect for each other and appreciate how lucky we are to be able to work and learn together. When we iterate and redesign, it is motivated by our shared politics and values.

In a global moment where social change work is more needed than ever, we need to push our personal and organizational comfort zones to advance meaningful partnerships. In the collective spirit of the young feminists working in Lebanon to advance their rights, we’ve been fortunate to find inspiration and a catalyst to re-evaluate our own approach to partnerships.

Claire Winterton is Chief Operating Officer at Global Fund for Women

Ruby Johnson is Co-Executive Director at FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund

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