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The secret meaning behind that wiggle word “Partnership”

What do you call it when I give you money, and you give me a report and a receipt? Most people would say this is simple. This is the relationship of a boss and an employee. A one-way street of authority and direction. Strangely, in some circles, this exchange of resources for receipts is often known as ‘partnership’.

Wiggle words are the words you use when you don’t want to say something clearly. They are used to soften a blow or to avoid a conflict. Partnership is one of those words. It’s almost Orwellian in the doublespeak.

The word partnership is used to either mean:

  1. equals who make mutual and equivalent decisions

  2. a request for finances

What kind of partner are you?

Do you also receive the same emails and direct mail campaigns that cross my desk every week? Everyone from Sudan to Sarnia seems intent in offering a me a ‘partnership.’

At a recent World Vision event, I was invited as a guest panelist to discuss what effective partnership may actually look like.

My fellow panelists were the author Dr. Harold Percy and pastor in an Anglican parish in Streetsville, Ontario; as well as Ernest Fraser from South Africa who presently works as World Vision’s Partnership Coordinator out of Swaziland.

I loved the topic and we spent a great couple of hours telling the inspiring, frustrating and often funny stories of Short Term Mission teams attempting international partnerships. From emotional promises to dashed expectations. Short-termers sometimes see through sepia-toned glasses. They desire epic and enourmous personal achievement, And engage in the normal (and hilarious) cultural gaffes that are ever-present in any interaction in a new place.

This word, “partnership” definitely revealed a wide range of responses

I really enjoyed the give and take, as well as the informed and important questions. Important realities were discussed and the more awkward versions of this work had suggestions on how we might refocus towards newer and healthier partnerships. During the morning I asked what are the foundational questions we ask when we try to partner with others.

How do we begin to try to partner?  Honestly, for a long time, our way was to just bring in some resources to help out with peoples needs.

Bags of used clothing and decommissioned medical equipment was our goodwill attempt to answer the question,

“What do they need?”

This is a great question to ask in terms of relief work. It is necessary to give protection, food, water, shelter and medical care for people who will otherwise die today or tomorrow.

But, ask this question when it is not an emergency and it will strip the person of dignity as they stand as victims, not partners. They must take what we give. This positions us as benefactors and eventually corrupts us.

This relationship quickly falters as entitlement and power meets the frustration of being seen as one of life’s losers, instead of a person with ability and dreams. Recipients grow ungrateful as they receive cast-offs and grow dependant. Benefactors feel increasingly misused by an ‘ungrateful attitude’.

The relationship is doomed to failure.

Eventually this process changed, the new question was

“What do you need?”

Agencies began to ask what the community wanted. This was a much better process, people began to take ownership for their projects, volunteers began to come forward.

Still, the position of benefactor and patron allows for inequality.

When I ask what do you need, I am also subtly telling you that you cannot meet your own needs, others must solve their problems for them. Benefactors take on a hero role. The process may take longer, but this question also leads to a more subtle dependency, perhaps a maternalistic power rather than paternalistic … but parenting in any case.

Recently, the question has again adapted, now some agencies are asking,

“What are your dreams?”

As the answer to this question promotes the individual, other questions may also help get us to the heart of the question.

What kind of community do you want your children to grow up in?

This question reinforces who is in the drivers seat. The community takes on sole responsibility, and as partners, we are honored to assist in their responsibility.

As my friend Julio from Honduras explains.

“I have a heavy table in my house and when I want to move it, I may ask you for help. I sometimes need a friend to give me a hand. The key for you to remember is that when you let go of your end, you do not own the table.This is my table. In the same way, I also own the problems of my community. They are not yours. I may ask for a hand, but they are my responsibility. I own the table, and I own my problems”

You do not own the table

What have you received from your ‘partners’ on the ground? If we are truly looking for mutuality in our partnerships, we must start to see ourselves not only as the person asking these three questions, but also responding to the questions. If you don’t have someone in your life who is asking you those questions are you really in a partnership with them?

Real Partners can both ask and answer all three questions … do you?

Mark Crocker

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