PUT THE MISSION AT THE CENTRE OF THE OPERATION: “The Partnership’s guiding philosophy is to help others be successful in achieving a shared goal. When our partners and collaborators are successful, we are successful,” stated Mike Tanner, Founding Director of the Partnership for Water Sustainability, when he explained the foundational difference between evolving a network and building an organization

Note to Reader:

The focus of the article that follows below is on what it means to evolve a partnership network rather build a conventional organization. The article is in two parts. In the first half, Mike Tanner and Derek Richmond on the ingredients that account for the success of the Partnership for Water Sustainability in British Columbia as a network that “convenes for action”. In the second half, Mike Tanner reviews the research into the reasons why “networked nonprofits” are far more effective than conventional entities.

In November 2016, the new Societies Act came into effect in British Columbia. It provided clarity regarding types of societies. This clarity helped “The Partnership” define its identity. The Partnership is not, and cannot be, a member-funded society. Directors are the only formal ‘members’ and are the only ones to have voting rights.

The mission of “The Partnership” involves bringing the right people together in constructive ways with good information, such that they are in a better position to create authentic visions and strategies for addressing the concerns of community. As the secretariat for the Georgia Basin Inter-Regional Educational Initiative (IREI), The Partnership is the hub for a convening for action network in the local government setting.

The Partnership is led by a team of community-minded and mission-focused elders. Although many on the team are retired from their jobs, they continue their water-centric mission as volunteers. The article below is presented as a conversation between Mike Tanner and Derek Richmond, two Founding Members of The Partnership. The desired outcome of the interview approach to information sharing is that it would provide readers with insight into the modus operandi and success of The Partnership.

DOING BUSINESS DIFFERENTLY IN BRITISH COLUMBIA: We put our Mission at the Centre of our Operation

“The Partnership for Water Sustainability is incorporated as a non-for-profit society and therefore is a legal entity, yet operationally it functions as a network rather than as an organization in any conventional sense. The work of The Partnership is guided by a network way-of-thinking that reflects our genesis as a water-centric technical committee in the 1990s,” states Mike Tanner, a Founding Director and Partnership Treasurer. Prior to his retirement from BC Hydro, Mike was a senior manager responsible for delivering the Power Smart program.

“In the pre-society era of The Partnership, we were primarily an inter-governmental committee. We brought together representatives of many organizations who then worked collaboratively for the greater good in delivering the Convening for Action in British Columbia initiative. We did this work under the umbrella of the Water Sustainability Action Plan,” adds Derek Richmond, another Founding Member and Partnership Secretary. He is a Past-Chair (2011-2016) of CAVI- Convening for Action on Vancouver Island. Prior to his retirement from government, he was Manager of Engineering with the City of Courtenay.

Collaborative leadership is a foundation piece for achieving the mission of the Partnership for Water Sustainability 

MIKE TANNER: “When the moment of truth came in 2010 to incorporate the convening for action network of collaborating organizations as “The Partnership”, the Founding Members made a conscious decision to continue our evolution as a network rather than build an organization with all the obligations that entails.”

“We had no intention of falling into the trap where the focus is on fundraising in order to pay the salaries of staff. Rather, we recognized that to be successful in facilitating changes in practice over the long-term, the groundwork had to be done by our partners.  This means that the work of The Partnership must be aligned with and support their organizational objectives.”

DEREK RICHMOND: “Building on Mike’s reference to alignment, this means that The Partnership has a facilitating role. We bring people and organizations together to achieve a shared goal. Our mantra is develop tools, develop talent, and focus on outcomes.”

“We learned very early in our evolution that it takes a third party to bring people together. Otherwise, they tend to become wrapped up within their own worlds and rarely venture beyond their boundaries.”

MIKE TANNER: “Derek, I believe it would help inform others if you and I take a moment to reflect on the story of how The Partnership got its start. In the early 2000s, as you will recall, the provincial government and Real Estate Foundation agreed to be bold and co-fund Tim Pringle’s idea for implementing collaborative leadership, also known as convening for action.

“At the  time, Tim was the Executive Director of the Real Estate Foundation. Tim had a vision and this vision aligned with the philosophical think pieces that the late Erik Karlsen (1945-2020) had crafted to guide the process for development of the Water Sustainability Action Plan. Erik was The Partnership’s ‘eminence grise’,

“As a funder, Tim was in a position was to put his ideas into action. Long story short, two provincial government Ministries matched the multi-year funding commitment by the Real Estate Foundation. This gave us the time and flexibility to make things happen.”

DEREK RICHMOND: “That is right, Mike, we had the time and space to learn by doing. A lot of it was intuitive. We tapped into universal principles. We learned through experience. One of our big take-aways was the power of peer-based learning. And that only happens when you bring people together. Especially when it is the right people in the right place at the right time.”

“When leadership is shared among members, rather than turning to one specific leader to guide and be the expert, it is known as collaborative leadership. This involves bringing the right people together in constructive ways with good information, such that they create authentic visions and strategies for addressing the shared concerns of their organizations and community.”

“Collaborative leadership is a foundation piece for the Water Sustainability Action Plan and the success of the The Partnership.”

MIKE TANNER: “Collaborative leadership combined with the network way-of-doing business has allowed The Partnership to be lean and nimble. We have a long history. We have built on the many successes that we achieved during the period 1992 through 2010.”

“By placing the emphasis on evolving a network rather than building an organization, it means that The Partnership is that much more effective and adaptable in helping others be successful in achieving a shared goal. When our partners and collaborators are successful, The Partnership is successful.”

DEREK RICHMOND: “We define success in terms of how our partners incrementally make progress in achieving the vision for Living Water Smart in British Columbia. By that, we mean reconnect people, land, water and fish in altered landscapes! Bringing this vision to fruition requires an inter-generational commitment.”

“The Partnership has a primary goal, to build bridges of understanding and pass the baton from the past to the present and future. The role of elders is therefore a lynch-pin for inter-generational collaboration.”

Mike Tanner’s research into the characteristics that the Partnership shares with “Networked Nonprofits”

“Within British Columbia, and certainly within the local government setting, The Partnership has a unique modus operandi in terms of our partnership network reason for being. So, we wondered, how unique are we? With this thought in mind, I embarked on a search of the published literature to look for other precedents,” reports Mike Tanner.

“In the process, I learned that the Harvard Business School has been looking at this question of network versus organizational success for a long period of time. In particular, professors Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano are co-authors of the groundbreaking 2008 Stanford Social Innovation Review article titled The Networked Nonprofit. Their research is validation of what The Partnership has accomplished intuitively. Their  findings explain  why an organization such as The Partnership is far more effective than conventional entities.”

“The authors note that  management wisdom says that nonprofits must be large and in charge to do the most good. But they report that some of the world’s most successful organizations instead stay small, sharing their load with like-minded, long-term partners. Their conclusion  is  that the success of networked nonprofits suggests that organizations should focus less on growing themselves and more on cultivating their networks.”

“The focus of Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano is on non-government organizations (NGOs). The Partnership is unique in that our main focus is on evolving a network that is government-based. Governments, especially local governments, are also nonprofits. From experience, we can draw the conclusion that the research findings for an NGO-based network apply equally well to The Partnership’s government-based network.”

Mission, Not Organization

“What is valuable about the research by Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano is that they identify the factors that explain why The Partnership has a history of being successful in collaborating with other organizations. First, we put our mission rather than our organization at the center of our operation. By sharing the pursuit of our mission with our network of partners, we forsake many conventional organizational benefits, such as control over program implementation, funding, and recognition. At the same time, however, we have far more impact than we could ever have on our own.”

“In an interview in 2016, Jane Wei-Skillern said that she and Sonia Marciano coined the term “networked nonprofit” to describe a particular approach to collaboration, one that was oriented around social impact above all else, that emerged from the bottom up by community members in the field, as a way to address problems more effectively, rather than collaboration for collaboration’s sake.”

“She added that the networks were unique in that while they might have been catalyzed by a few instrumental actors initially, all participants worked in true partnership, as peers and equals to drive toward field level impact.”

Trust, Not Control

“In a network, the parties would prefer to discuss issues and work through a problem to reach a solution. This leads to a second critical success factor identified by Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano. It is the principle of trust, not control. There is a very high level of trust in a network  because there is no formal partnership or documentation. It is just based on the trust aspect because the people involved know and respect each other.”

“The collaborators within a network share and help each other through what is called the ‘norm of reciprocity’. This requires that we repay in kind what another has done for us. An underlying norm of reciprocity is by itself a powerful engine for motivating, creating, sustaining, and regulating cooperative behavior. Simply put, everyone in the network is successful when other are successful. And that certainly is The Partnership’s guiding philosophy.”

Node, Not a Hub

“Networked nonprofits share a third trait, say Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano. They see themselves as nodes within a constellation of equal, interconnected partners, rather than as hubs at the center of their nonprofit universes. Because of the unrestricted and frequent communication between their different nodes, networked nonprofits are better positioned to develop more holistic, coordinated, and realistic solutions to social issues than are traditional nonprofit hubs.”

“In practice, The Partnership is both a hub and a node. We are the hub for the Georgia Basin Inter-Regional Educational Initiative. Yet there are also nodes within the IREI. What is the correct way to visualize a constellation of relationships? Is spokes on a wheel the appropriate image? Or is it overlapping circles? Does it really matter?”

DEREK RICHMOND: “By virtue of our constitution pursuant to the Societies Act, the Partnership is primarily a tool for facilitation, rather than an organization for membership.”

“The Partnership purpose is to share, disseminate and coordinate information that helps others achieve their goals in accordance with the vision for Living Water Smart. To achieve this, our role is to build and maintain a hub or foundation, from which others can connect, build and expand thus enabling continued dissemination of information.”

“To be successful, the network needs other nodes, each with a contact or ‘ambassador’ to ensure the seamless exchange of information and ideas on a self-supporting, independent and free-flowing basis. Success in water sustainability is contingent upon collaboration; inter-municipal, inter-regional, and inter-provincial. This can only be achieved through working across boundaries.”

“The segue to success is through the ambassadors of the Partnership who are the bridges across the boundaries  connecting to other nodes.”

Quotable Quote

“By mobilizing vast external resources, networked nonprofits can focus on their own expertise. At the same time, these external resources enhance the value and influence of each organization’s expertise. They help each network partner respond to local needs and become self-sustaining. And they allow networked nonprofits to develop holistic solutions at the scale of the problems they seek to address.” – Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano, 2008

To Learn More:

Download a copy of The Networked Nonprofit. Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano coined the term “networked nonprofit” with this article in 2008.

At the time of publication, Jane Wei-Skillern was an assistant professor of business administration in the General Management Unit and Social Enterprise Group at Harvard Business School. Sonia Marciano was a clinical associate professor of management and organizations at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Before that, Marciano was a senior lecturer at Harvard University.