Leveraging Power: How to Find the Balance in Partnership Convening

Usually, conveners of nonprofit or cross-sector partnerships are institutions with power. To avoid dominating the group and thereby discouraging member engagement, the conveners often reign in their power. But in so doing, they forego some opportunities to leverage their power in ways that would achieve better outcomes for the partnership.

I am using the term “convener” here to refer to the organization that hosts a gathering of people from more than one nonprofit and often also from organizations from other sectors. These gatherings have a purpose of exploring a collective effort that would serve a specific shared purpose and result in some type of ongoing coalition or partnership.

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Conveners are right to be sensitive to their use of power: They should not push their agenda; they should listen deeply to their partners’ goals and value them as equals. The solution is not to hold back on stepping into a leadership role altogether, but rather to do so in a way that encourages engagement, shared leadership and innovation. As we’ve worked with partnerships we’ve seen two key situations in which conveners often don’t use their power as they should, causing the partnerships to suffer or underperform.

The first situation is that of setting a vision for the partnership’s long-term impact around which participants align and engage. Setting a vision is a facilitated activity in which, ideally, all partner members have a voice and input. The challenge can arise when the convening group – and often primary facilitator – hedges on the contribution of its own vision for fear of being perceived as pushing its own agenda or abusing its power as facilitator. But by so doing, it robs the partnership of two things.

1. Others want to understand the intentions of the convener. When an institution of power is not clear about its own goals and intentions, it can create distrust.

2. Strong visions (from any partner) can provide a clear starting point for the collective vision-setting and goal-setting process.

The challenge, then, is for the convener to make space on the agenda to take off its convener hat and put on its partner organization hat to share appropriately in the vision setting for the partnership.

The second situation is taking on the role of coordinator or backbone support, as the Collective Impact Model* refers to it. We’ve seen organizations take great pains to organize a strong initial kickoff meeting, but then become reluctant to assume an ongoing coordination role, wanting to create a space for others to lead. Coordinator and leader are two different roles. The coordinator organizes meetings, agendas, and communication channels, ensures goals and metrics are in place, maintains a shared measurement system and manages resources. The partnership can still establish a shared leadership structure in which partners take on a leadership or advisory role of creating goals, developing strategy and addressing other important partnership issues, but the highly technical backbone support role should be clearly articulated to the group and, ideally, assumed by the convener organization.

Clear vision and a strong structure create the space needed for others to bring their ideas and resources to the table and step into leadership positions. These steps take time and resources. They are critical to helping the partnership move past the vagueness and confusion that can arise when these roles are left vacant. With vision and structure in place, the group is then empowered to focus its energy on developing truly innovative solutions that change systems and fundamentally solve the complex issues at hand.

* Kania, John and Kramer, Mark. “Collective Impact.” Stanford Social Innovation Journal. Winter 2011.