How to approach potential partners

From: Employment and Social Development Canada

Official title: Case studies: How to approach Potential Partners? The Ottawa Salvation Army's Experience (Ottawa, Ontario)

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The Salvation Army (SA) offers emergency assistance to people in need through the entire city of Ottawa. Its services include programs to address various needs, particularly housing support, addictions, community and family support, legal services, and spiritual support.

Knowing how to capitalize on pasts experiences

Past experiences can be useful in developing partnerships. Prior to joining the organization, the executive director of the SA had been a manager with the City of Ottawa. This was a great advantage. On the one hand, he already knew the organization and its range of services. On the other hand, his experience with the City of Ottawa gave him a better understanding of the area and the homelessness sector as a whole. In that regard, as an administrator for the City, he would focus on the system as a whole rather than on the operation of a given agency. This broader perspective allowed to reveal gaps, strengths and weaknesses throughout the existing network. When he was hired by the SA, he was able to apply this approach to connect his agency with a larger network of agencies and their services for people experiencing homelessness. He saw many complementarities between the service providers

Complementary thinking

Consequently, he started the position with an understanding of the gaps, challenges and overlaps in the system. In a context where agencies want to and have to use their funds as effectively as possible, his first goal was to maximize services based on the resources available. To do this, he had to talk to other organizations working in the same sector.

The Housing First model was brand new at the time for the City. It was a change to both practices and responsibilities of the agencies. The old philosophy was that people had to be “housing ready” to access housing. In concrete terms, that meant that the SA would call a partner when it had a given number of people ready to enter housing. However, the partner would sometimes return a person to the shelter, saying that the person was not ready to enter housing for all kinds of reasons (for example economic, or mental or physical health). Consequently, the SA would end up with all the clients that other agencies or hospitals could not serve, which impeded the SA’s ability to provide services.

With Housing First, the client was the starting point which serves as the central point of the discussion with potential partners. This led to agencies, which were each working on their own, to review their procedures. He admits that, at the beginning, there was some mistrust and fear, and that’s to be expected. With the new approach, the agencies had to come together, talk to each other, be part of the solution and start thinking about how each agency could complement the others. This is even more important because, unlike in the old model, the agencies’ services continued to be offered after the person had found housing.

Having an open mind

The biggest challenge that he observed involved overlapping services in shelters: “How many drop-in centres, offering the same services and referring clients to the same places, do we need? ” The overlap, that was observed, could harm clients with complex needs, when flexibility and openness to other ways of doing things would help existing programs work better for more clients.

Building the web

Within the first week in the position, the new executive director had met with other agencies to discuss this overlapping issue. How did he approach them? Simply by telephone or email after identifying agencies that were part of the SA network. He already knew some people, but did not limit himself to those people. He also wanted to speak with other organizations that he didn’t know at all, but that served the same clientele and did roughly the same work. He created a list of organizations in the area and asked them to identify who their connections were. He then contacted those agencies as well. The goal was to learn the agencies’ points of view and to understand how each of them viewed their role and the system in general.

Planning your meetings

When arranging the meetings, he was careful to clearly state the goal of the meeting, emphasizing that it was an information exchange from which each organization could learn something. He wanted each party to participate in the meetings with an open mind, a listening ear, a respectful attitude and a willingness to share: “We have to ask questions and be willing to share as much as we expect from the other person.” At the same time, because these were work meetings, it was important to be well prepared, by doing research on the organizations and expected results. In short, we had to succeed in both gaining the trust of the organizations contacted and discussing concrete issues regarding their work.

Understand the network to better respond

The logic behind the meetings was to understand the network to better respond by knowing:

  • how his colleagues in other agencies viewed their roles,
  • what they considered to be the strengths of their organizations,
  • how they felt that they fit into the network, and
  • what their opinions were of the SA (its role, its strengths and weaknesses, and what it should do or stop doing).

The advantage of initiating meetings in this way, between agencies that could become partners, was that it validated the other agency’s point of view and provided an outside view of one’s own organization. Every meeting ended with an agreement to meet again to discuss more specific topics: “People are always open to seeing how they can work together better, collaborate better or find out what another agency is doing. Personally, I learned a lot of useful things I didn’t know before.” This also gave employees from different agencies the opportunity to meet each other.

The meetings were very informative. They helped him learn about the agencies, particularly those working in different contexts. They enabled him to validate the relevance of the work done by each one, observe the gap between the needs and the services provided, have a frank discussion on the distribution of desired services, realize that sometimes one must give up certain activities because others do them better, gain the support of other agencies, and form relationships to build partnerships. The goal was not to ask prying questions on, for example, the number of employees, size of the budget or sources of funding. Rather, the objective was to think about service provision in a different, more complementary way, and to follow up with concrete action, despite potential but temporary resistance.

“[…] the most important thing is to believe that agencies and clients alike have nothing to lose and everything to gain from complementing each other. We need to believe in this principle; otherwise, there is no point in requesting meetings.”

The importance of meetings

The initial meetings also served as stepping stones to expand the discussion to even larger groups. Once a rapport had been established and initial resistance overcome, the next logical step was to gradually include other stakeholders and fields of activity in the discussion. The City of Ottawa also helped to bring agencies together by organizing several information sessions. This allowed various agencies to meet face to face in the same room and use these opportunities to continue the discussions after the official meetings with the City.

Establishing regular meetings with community organizations makes it possible to inform public authorities about the problems that clients face (adequate or inadequate services). Having different people repeat the same message helps show the significance of flaws in the system. The message is better received because no organization is blamed directly.

Partnerships are not developed without resistance. However, the dialogue must be maintained with reluctant organizations, because the resistance generally does not last long. On the contrary, continuing to include reluctant organizations (even the most difficult ones) in the meetings ensures that everyone involved is at the table and that the dialogue is open and keeps going. It is essential to understand what the most closed organizations have to say and why they are saying it. These organizations may gradually come to realize that they can no longer work alone and, at that point, collaboration becomes possible.

Consulting is engaging

Consultations with community organizations and the community have led to a consensus on:

  • the need to centralize as much as possible clients’ access to housing to avoid duplications or contradictions in the provision of services, and;
  • to avoid putting organizations in competition with one another for access to housing.

This “housing locator” function, developed in partnership with the City of Ottawa, has been assigned to the SA because of its experience and work conducted. This means that a client who approaches an organization to find housing will be referred to the SA, which becomes the gateway. With the housing locator function, caseworkers, who are all part of a larger team, meet with the owners, describe the situation and make sure they are committed to offering housing. The caseworkers find housing for a group of organizations and not just for SA clients. The housing is listed in a databank that shows the number of spaces available each month, their location, the owners’ preferences, the clients’ characteristics and so on. Thus, clients are matched with housing in a much fairer and more efficient manner that favours the maintenance of long-term relationships.

Entering into a partnership also means understanding that each organization has a duty to maintain the conversation between partners. Funds are granted for the provision of services and each agency has a responsibility to do the best it can to establish and maintain relationships with the other agencies, to agree to hear things that are sometimes hard to hear and to be able to listen, with the understanding that the community is sticking together to maintain services for clients, who are the starting point after all.

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