The coronavirus pandemic sure feels like a watershed moment that’s permeating just about every facet of society. Things have been escalating rapidly and we’re living it together, simultaneously around the globe. As I write this, over 330,000 people have been diagnosed positive and nearly 15,000 people have lost their lives. Millions more lives have been completely upended in a matter of weeks, if not days. The ground feels like it’s shifting beneath our feet—for many people more than just a bit—and it’s a lot to absorb and process. None of us knows what the future holds, but one thing we can say for sure is that when we get through this, the world will be a different place. We will be changed, in ways both small and profound.
As I continue to think about what this all means, two words that keep coming to mind are “partners” and “partnership.” When you break it all down, a healthy civil society depends fully on partners and partnerships, at every level. The unwritten social contracts that guide every society and that help shape cultures are built on the concept of partnership. For institutions and organizations to work well together depends on partnership. The employee/employer relationship is a partnership. Our friendships are partnerships. And, of course, families are created by partners. In every instance, the common theme of partnership is people working together with shared values toward common goals.
When I think of the philanthropies and larger nonprofits that have engaged Constructive over the years, I’ve been reminded how many bring people together in partnership through approaches that leverage collective impact. As one of our clients in the environment space who works through a collective impact model rhetorically asked last week, “How do you advance your mission in such overwhelmingly uncertain times?” She shared, and I agree that it starts with solidarity. Finding common ground. If ever there were a time to put aside petty differences and work together in partnership, the coronavirus pandemic is it.
“Partner” also shares its roots with “participation.” Almost every nonprofit is built on core values that require some form of participation. It’s not possible to have true diversity, equity, and inclusion without it. At Constructive, our approach is deeply rooted in a participatory process. Because we understand that to find new solutions—as Herbert Simon said, taking “existing situations and turning them into ones that are preferred”—we must collaborate and co-create. This is not possible without good partners. Looking back at Constructive’s many clients and projects, our best work is invariably the result of a great relationship.
And these relationships are always grounded in a strong sense of partnership.
Four years ago, I wrote an article called “Design Vendors are Destroying Nonprofits!” I did so to share perspective on a framing problem that I saw in the nonprofit and education sectors. The gist of it was that what we call things matters. Too often, nonprofits use the term “vendor” to describe a branding or design agency in RFPs and conversations. And it’s my belief that the “v-word” undermines the value that partnerships can create.
“Vendor” unwittingly signals that a limit is being placed on a relationship of what each party should expect from the other. Vendors are purely transactional. They’re certainly not strategic. And no one should be under the illusion that they and their vendor are “in this together.” None of this is done with malice, of course. Nonprofits don’t want transactional vendors to help improve their brand strategy, create more effective communications, or design a new website. They want partners who will bring all of their best to the relationship every day.
On the flip side, pretty much every agency talks about being partners of their clients, especially when you read our proposals or websites. These are certainly the kinds of relationships Constructive likes to cultivate. But this sentiment can be challenged in an environment that’s heavily defined by fixed-bid projects. Projects almost always have a start-date and end-date. To make sure they are profitable, agencies must keep their time spent within what was estimated—especially if every new project a client needs help with is put out to RFP, making it very hard to know if there will be more to do together once the current project is over. It also means you need to continuously stay focused on winning new projects instead of delivering greater value through existing relationships.
Which brings me back to partners and partnerships—and why now, when we’re all living through a global pandemic (did I actually just say that?!), I’m so glad to both have and contribute to them. Things are scary right now. The world has been turned upside-down. That’s when you need partners the most. In Constructive’s case, we’re fortunate that about one-third of all of our work is done through our Partner Services agreements—annual retainers in which both we and our clients commit to being there for one another. This predictability is a beacon in unsettling times like these, both for us and the organizations we work with. And never has this been more apparent to me than now.
For the nonprofits we work with, while it may feel like the world’s on pause, there are important things related to their branding, communications, and websites that need to get done. In many cases, social sector organizations have even more to do because of the crisis. Lives may actually be on the line. Some organizations are scrambling and situations are changing by the day, sometimes the hour. Now is a time when nonprofits need nimble partners that are ready to act and adapt with them.
For me personally, and for our team, this is where I’m so thankful for the long-term relationships we’ve cultivated over the years. Because of Partner Services, our clients know that Constructive’s team is here for them—and will continue to be here. They know they have our full attention. And through our partner network, we have colleagues that we trust to add expertise and capacity when we and our clients need it. As a result, everyone engaged has greater trust, knows what to expect, and understands how to work together effectively—increasing certainty of execution and reducing risk. We all also know that, because of our commitment to one another and our history together, everyone is willing to going above-and-beyond when the stakes are high. Like they are right now.
Partnerships make us a stronger company in these incredibly uncertain times. And in Constructive’s case, our team is extremely grateful for them. So, on behalf of all of us here, thank you. We deeply appreciate the opportunities to work with you and your trust and support—and we are here, ready and always eager to help. The coronavirus crisis is testing us all—and it will continue to test us. And when we overcome it, those individuals, organizations, communities, and nations that have strong partners are likely to be the ones that will best be able to rise to the challenges, whatever they may be, and come out stronger on the other side.