best practices character selection

When Being “Partners” Dilutes Your Story

Do you call your doctor your “health partner”? Probably not. While you both care about your health, you each have different levels of knowledge, liability for poor decisions, and definitions of success. Using the word “partner” ignores all your differences.
Lately, organizations are talking about telling their stories better. Every story needs a great relationship between its characters, and “partners” is one of the most popular relationships among philanthropists, nonprofits and consultants. Sometimes that term is accurate, but when it is a misnomer stories can’t get traction.

You can be equals without being partners.
Perhaps “partner” feels safe because it doesn’t imply status. But would you start calling your doctor a “health partner” because you worry people would think you were superior to him? Perhaps people think “partner” connotes shared commitment and collaboration—so we should all go by the same title. But that logic clouds what could otherwise be easy to understand (i.e., I don’t know what a health partner is, but I know what a doctor is) and tells a vague story.

Sadly, the exciting story, the one about myriad obstacles and players taking unique risks on the same field, is lost with the idea that everyone has the same role in the fight.

Calling everyone a partner blurs your real relationships.
Take funders. Many funders call their grantees “partners” and their political allies “partners” and advocates in the community—you guessed it—“partners.”  While everyone involved in these partnerships may want a healthy, thriving community, they all bring different strengths and agendas to the table. The word “partner” lumps everyone together and erases all of that richness.

The funder-grantee relationship has a clear story—tell it.
Instead of a world of partners, let’s hear the story of funders who infuse agencies with monies who in turn train advocates to raise their voices, who then reach legislators who take a stand and make a change. The collection of characters in these stories tells us so much more than a kitchen sink full of “partners.”

Consultant isn’t a dirty word—it’s accurate.
This same blurring happens with consultants. Consultants are experts, counselors, advisors, analysts, etc. They charge their clients for services the clients don’t have in-house and the clients make the investment and take the risk of following the consultants’ advice. The consultants are not doing the same work with the same liabilities; they don’t have the same skin in the game. Yet, consultants often refer to themselves as client “partners.”

Accurate relationships tell two stories at once.
Instead of being partners with every client, let’s talk about how consultants are the complement, vitamin, jet fuel, or lighthouse that helped the client reach her fullest potential. Because there are two different stories converging to yield two happy endings, the distinction is better for both the client and the consultant or the funder and the grantee.

Let’s call ourselves what we are.
So if we’re not all taking the same risks, aiming for the same return on investment, and power differentials still exist, why are we using the word “partner” so often? When misapplied, “partner” is not really a catch-all—it is a cloud-all.

Let’s reserve the word “partnership” for those relationships where we truly share the same risks and benefits, and then call our other relationships what they really are.  Our stories will only get better.

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