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Voices from the Field: Partnership Experience Within TNC (and The Conservation Partnership Center)

Sherwood, Kristin; Dutton, Ian 2/22/2012

In preparing for this special issue of Science Chronicles, we thought it would be helpful to learn about your experience as conservation partners. Thanks to the 30 of you who responded to our quick online survey titled, “Scientists as Partners” (sent January 17). You told us loud and clear that you think you’re pretty good partners, but you know you can do better. Here is what you said.

TNC Scientists as Collaborators and Partners
To start, you told us that you think scientists at TNC are fairly well prepared to collaborate in conservation initiatives and that TNC scientists also perform well as partners. There was some variability in the ratings, however, and comments suggest that seniority and experience are leading factors in executing effective partnership. It’s clear that partnership is something that most people “learn on the job,” and normally involves a significant amount of trial and error.
This begs the question — if staff had more opportunity early in their career to learn about rigorous partnership practices, would we be more effectively meeting our conservation goals? Would more training help us to reduce the error side of the equation, and reduce the risks we take when we embark on a new collaborative project? Upon reflection, we also felt that it would be helpful for us to test our assumptions with our partners at a later date, and ask THEM how they feel about our performance as a partner.
“I think most people learn as they go along or come with existing experience”
“On average, we are respectful and work well with partners, but we could use more formal partnership training.”
The Most Important Skills for Partnership
Good communication was ranked, by far, as the most important skill of a good collaborative scientist. Communication is a broad term, of course, and it can encompass a lot. When we think of good communication in a partnership, we see a group of organizations that have very clearly spelled out their intent for working together and their expectations of each other. There is good meeting facilitation and follow-up; everyone is kept up-to-date on current project needs and issues.
But good communication goes deeper, and includes skills like “interpreting” between different people and perspectives, encouraging respect among partners, and empowering others to communicate within and beyond the partnership. Your written comments also emphasized these more subtle elements of a communication. You specifically noted the importance of effective interaction with non-science counterparts, as well as across cultures, socio-economic contexts and organizational types. It is possible to learn these skills. Using an analytical, scientific approach to communication challenges can be very productive, but we also believe that good communication entails intuition, imagination and vision. These qualities are inherent for some people, and take practice and coaching for others.
We also asked you to rank yourselves as partners, and with a mean score of 7.53 our of a possible 10, respondents clearly feel as if they “meet or exceed” the characteristics of a collaborative scientist. However, those respondents who did comment further also believe there is always room for improvement:
“No one should rate themselves as a perfect partner. If this were true then we would work ourselves out of a job.”
“Who's perfect? We all have room to improve! I feel good about my ability to relate and translate science into meaningful outcomes for conservation but am always looking for ways to do it better.”
What Makes a Great (and a Lousy) Partner?
And finally, we asked you to tell us about the best and worst partnership experiences that you have been involved in. Your comments and stories underscored the findings we have highlighted above. When a partnership is effective, these are the kinds of things you told us you see:
  • A common vision and goals, and joint project implementation;
  • Clearly defined roles and responsibilities for each organization, and clarity about what value each organization brings to the project;
  • A culture of mutual respect, dedication and good humor across all partners;
  • Two-way communication across partners, and a lack of “turf” issues; and
  • The ability to move quickly and show results in order to show the value of collaboration.
And when partnerships don’t work, your experience told us that these are some of the key reasons:
  • Organizations are driving their own agendas, and don’t create true shared objectives;
  • An imbalance of power and work;
  • No trust or established common ground across groups;
  • Unwillingness to share information and data; and
  • Poor group or project management.
The Conservancy has a long history of working in collaboration with other organizations. And arguably, we’re pretty good at it, but your responses to our survey tell us that we can do better. We all know that partnerships are complicated. Partnerships involve other people and organizations, each with their own goals, expectations, biases and values. That’s a recipe for amazing outcomes. It’s also the recipe for major risk. A failed partnership means lost time, wasted money and compromised reputation.
We’d like to begin the conversation about how staff at the Conservancy can ramp up their partnership skills. Some skills are softer and some are more concrete, but there are ways to practices and improve almost all of them. A first stop is the newly launched online resource, the Conservation Partnership Center.
The intent of the Conservation Partnership Center is to help practitioners learn how to create and manage more effective partnerships for greater conservation impact. The website leads users through six interactive lessons, addressing such questions as “Do I need to partner?”, “How do I negotiate a partnership?”, “How do we implement our joint work most effectively?” and more. The resource center also provides a searchable library of reports, case studies, and sample documents on how to put partnership concepts into action.
The Center is only a start, and we’re actively looking for other ways to help staff raise the bar on their ability to develop and implement good partnerships. Your input is welcomed!

Contact Kristin Sherwood, manager, Conservation Partnership Initiative, The Nature Conservancy or Ian Dutton, Rasmuson Foundation.