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Magazines > Marketing Library Services > January/February 2023

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MLS - Marketing Library Services
Vol. 37 No. 1 — Jan/Feb 2023
After First Contact: Building Sustainable Relationships With Community Partners
by Audrey Barbakoff

In the previous issue of MLS (November/December 2022), I wrote about how to identify potential community partners and introduce yourself to them. That article focused on getting to and through the first contact. So, once you have found and connected with a partner, how do you turn that initial conversation into a successful project or program? In this issue, I will focus on how to go beyond the initial meetup to build an ongoing relationship with concrete results. I will cover how to approach a potential partner with a proposal, key points to consider to help your first project go smoothly, and what to do next when the partnership ends.

Making Your First Ask

Imagine that you have already connected with a potential partner organization and had an initial conversation about its goals, strengths, and barriers. You probably came away from that conversation brimming with ideas. You would like to invite this new connection to join you on a specific project or program. How do you make the first ask? Do you need to wait until you have had multiple conversations or until they have asked you for something first? Do you need to start with small requests and work your way up to bigger ideas?

Of course, there is no one answer that works in every situation. Some of your next steps will be driven by the unique organization you hope to work with and the community you both serve. However, while every partnership is different, there are some general principles you can apply in most cases and some questions you can ask yourself before making a proposal. (If a particular piece of this advice does not feel right for your situation, listen to the needs of your partner and trust your gut.)

In general, there is no need to wait until you have had a set number of interactions. I have launched partnerships right after a first meeting, and I’ve also had relationships that did not result in a tangible project for years. It is also not essential to start with a small ask. For instance, if an upcoming community event, cultural celebration, or grant deadline is motivating for both organizations, you can seize the opportunity to work together even if your relationship is new. What matters most is that the opportunity is relevant and timely for both organizations.

One exception to this guideline may be when organizations are hesitant to trust each other. Starting small might be helpful if you have some concerns about the partner and want to get a sense of what it is like to work with them when the stakes are low. The same is true when the library needs to earn the other group’s trust. For example, people and organizations from systematically excluded groups may have had their trust broken, often repeatedly, by official institutions such as libraries. In cases like that, small, short-term, joint projects can offer a way to demonstrate your trustworthiness.

In general, to understand whether it is a good time to make an ask, consider the following questions:

1. What exactly is my ask? What is the goal? It is important to be clear and specific about what you are asking the partner to do. That does not mean you need to have all of the answers up front—part of your ask might be for the partner to help formulate the proposal. You do need to understand the level of involvement you are requesting. Are you asking the partner to be an equal co-creator, designing the project alongside you? Or do you already have a partial plan and want them to provide a particular resource or activity? What can the library do, and what would you need the other group to do? For the partnership to be successful, all parties need to understand and agree to their roles. An overly vague intention to work together could result in great ideas that never go anywhere or in a misunderstanding that later leads to confusion and resentment.

2. What would be the benefit to the library, to the partner, and to the community you both serve? Approaching an organization with a request can feel intimidating if you believe you are asking for an unrequited favor. But a partnership is not only for the library; it should also benefit the partner. For both, the opportunity should feel worth the resources they might invest. If you can articulate what you think the benefit would be to your organization, their organization, and the community, then making an ask can feel less like imposing on someone else’s goodwill and more like offering a way to support your shared mission.

3. Why am I asking this organization in particular? What is the match between them and the opportunity? A partner is more likely to say yes if the goal of the joint work is clearly aligned with their mission and areas of expertise. Even if the organization ultimately does not sign on to a project, making a thoughtful ask shows that you understand and respect their work. This can strengthen the relationship until the next opportunity.

Starting Your Project on the Right Foot

At this point, you have a partner who has agreed to collaborate on a project. What’s next? It is important to establish clear expectations, ideally in writing, early in the process. The idea is not to create an enforceable contract or an iron-clad plan, but to ensure that everyone has a shared understanding of the project’s goals, milestones, and roles. Clarifying these key expectations up front can prevent many potential misunderstandings and problems later. A simple project charter template could include this information:

  • The project’s goal(s)
  • The contact information of project leads and backups from each organization (especially important if there are staff changes during the project)
  • A basic timeline identifying key milestones and firm dates
  • Lists of key tasks and resources, including who will be responsible for them
  • A communication plan (more on this later)
  • How you will evaluate success (more on this later as well)

Modifying your plan along the way is normal, but you want to ensure that everybody starts on the same page and has a tool for discussion when the plan needs to evolve. Changes are fine if they are discussed and agreed on by all partners.

Communication Is Key

In my experience, the most important element of a partnership is communication. When a project stumbles, miscommunication is frequently the root of the problem. Because our own communication styles and preferences can feel natural and obvious to us, it is easy to assume that others will automatically share information like we do. However, every culture, profession, organization, and individual is unique. The communication norms often considered to be “professional” in the library field (and in many American white-collar work environments) are not universal or neutral. Cultivating cultural humility can help library workers recognize and respect many other equally valid ways of corresponding. Especially when working with partners whose lived experiences are very different from those of library employees, it is important not to make assumptions about how conversations will happen.

Having a communication plan as part of your project charter might help define preferences around these details:

  • Frequency: How often will you discuss the project? Will you have regularly scheduled meetings, or will you reach out as needed? How long might it normally take for any of you to respond to an email or voicemail?
  • Method: When you need to talk to each other, how will you reach out? Do people prefer to be contacted by phone, email, or text? Do you want to meet in person or virtually?
  • What types of information to share: If something new or unexpected comes up, when do you need to check in? What decisions can each organization make for itself, and which need to be made jointly?

Initiating a conversation about communication styles, preferences, and expectations can also help you surface important differences that you should understand (even if you do not officially document them). For example, some people and cultures prioritize efficiency and directness, such as emails and meetings that are short and to the point. Others value relationship-building and might feel alienated or even offended by talks that jump straight to business without any friendly chitchat. Some cultures use eye contact to build trust, while others consider it rude. We also have different perspectives on time; some equate punctuality with respect, while others see time as more flexible. Of course, these are just a few of many possible examples.

This may all sound a bit philosophical—right up until you are steaming mad at a partner who is late for the third time, then spends the first 10 minutes of your meeting making small talk. Or until you are ready to give up on a partner who made a promotional flier without asking or telling you first, then took 2 weeks to respond to your email about it. In these scenarios, it’s possible that everyone is acting in good faith, but you have just made different assumptions about communication. Despite good intentions, even small issues can build up to undermine trust, cause confusion or resentment, and lead to lower-quality results. You can avoid many frustrating misunderstandings by spending a few minutes at the start of the project discussing expectations on how best to share information.

Discuss Evaluation Early On

Discussing evaluation should be one of the first steps in a planning process, not the last. By setting a clear goal before planning the specifics of a project, you can intentionally design each step to achieve the impact you want. This type of backward planning is useful for any project, but it is especially helpful when working with a partner. Developing an evaluation plan provides an opportunity to discuss what success would look like to each party.

It is important not to make assumptions about what a partner hopes to accomplish. Libraries tend to have standard output metrics for defining success (program attendance, door count, circulation, etc.), but those may or may not be equally meaningful to another organization. Perhaps the partner wants to reach a specific group of people, rather than a specific number. Or it may care more about outcomes than outputs, such as understanding if users learn and apply a new skill or feel more connected.

The evaluation plan should not only define success at the end of the project, but should also consider how the partners can check in along the way. This allows you to catch and address potential issues early. Developmental or formative evaluation could take the form of regular check-in chats, scheduled debriefing talks after important project milestones, piloting small aspects of the projects, or getting user feedback. One of the most impactful evaluative practices is simply regular individual reflection. I often advise people to schedule time for reflection on their calendars, just as they would schedule a meeting. Personally, I find it helpful to journal my reflections. I ask myself, “How do I think things are going, and why? What might I change or sustain? What have I learned that I can apply going forward?”

Learning From Failure

No matter how carefully you plan, some partnerships do not work out, for any number of reasons. It is essential not to see failure as something fatal or something to be avoided at all costs. Ending a partnership with care and intention can sometimes be the healthiest option.

Treat failure as a learning experience, not an end point. What could have been done differently, and why? What elements were successful and worth pursuing again in a new way? The purpose of this reflection is not to assign blame or cause guilt; rather, it is to uncover the lessons that can help you succeed in the future. When you learn from an experience, failure becomes a stepping stone to a later success.

Prioritize the relationship over the partnership. A partnership is a defined, time-bound project that you do with another organization. A relationship, however, is ongoing and does not require you to have an active project together. If you try to hold on to an unsuccessful project at the expense of the goodwill and trust between the partners, it may be difficult to work together again. If you preserve the relationship, then future joint projects may still be possible. Communicate clearly and compassionately about ending the project, express continued respect for the partner and their work, and stay in touch.

After the Project Ends

You may do only one project with an organization, or you may work together on many over a long period. When the current event is over, what should you do next? How do you stay in touch without seeming overly eager?

You have likely learned quite a bit about your partner’s communication preferences, which can guide how often you reach out. In general, however, touching base in brief and intermittent ways is enough to keep a door open between you. Generally, I try to connect personally with partners approximately quarterly or at least a couple of times a year. If an email or call bounces because a key contact has left, you have the opportunity to reach out to a new person before the organizational connection lapses.

Personally, I try to have a short, relevant reason for reconnecting, such as sharing an article that made me think of their work, congratulating them on a milestone, or letting them know about an upcoming event of interest. If you already naturally encounter your partner in the community, that can be the main way you stay in touch, although the occasional personalized email or call still helps build rapport. When communications are occasional, brief, and warmly tailored specifically to your contact’s interests, they are generally welcomed. By maintaining strong relationships, your library can go from a first contact to a successful first partnership to a world of possible future collaborations.

Audrey Barbakoff , Ph.D. is CEO at Co/Lab Capacity, LLC in Bainbridge Island, Wash. She holds an Ed.D. from the University of Southern California and an M.L.I.S. from the University of Washington. Barbakoff has more than a decade of experience in public library community engagement. She is the author of the forthcoming book Twelve Steps to a Community-Led Library. Her email address is audrey@colabcapacity.com.
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