Adopt and Adapt: Setting Up Collaborative Partnerships

By Arshad Merchant

There is an old saying that most of us know: “You can’t put a square peg into a round hole.” Well, what if you make adjustments to the peg and/or to the hole. Eventually, it’s got to fit, right? This is the challenge facing many non-profit organizations that provide a robust service in somebody else’s space. For example, many early stage organizations in the youth development and educational enhancement space see early success working in a particular school or partner setting or two… or three. And, with the success, there is a desire – by staff, by Board members, by funders – to replicate the impact in other settings.  Two of my current clients are in such a situation – one in 5 sites and one in 7 sites. Each has outstanding leadership; each has outstanding staff; each has enthusiastic funders. However, as we peel the onion, it appears that each has had to make necessary choices to “adapt” their model to their partner’s context. Sometimes it is a simple dimension such as size, but other times, it is about providing autonomy and deferring judgment to the school’s principal or the partner non-profit’s executive director. As a staff person at one of my clients said: “We have a plan going in for how our program will work. And then once they ask for a change, we make it – our plans don’t matter as much as their wishes.” The result is that a program of 5 to 7 sites may have up to 7 variations that don’t lend themselves to ready replication. These organizations – like many others – need to come to terms with what they want their partners to “adopt” and where they are willing to “adapt.” If everything about a program is adapted from site to site, then quality and process reliability are hard to realize. Training becomes more expensive, and execution success may be more dependent on the leaders of the partner rather than on the organization success. It may be harder to have success let alone prove it. On the other hand, if an organization says “take it or leave it,” many partners may simply reject the model. The partners themselves have been successful – or are trying to be successful – by their own unique styles and approaches. For my clients and others to simply expect that others will “adopt” the program wholesale may reduce opportunities for partner buy-in and championing, and may limit the potential impact of the program because it doesn’t fit the place. Achieving this takes careful understanding of the “peg” organization to know what is really important and where site-to-site or partner-to-partner variation would, at the minimum, continue to allow for success and, where possible, add to the success. Figuring this out takes time and effort, and a discovery or codification process can help an organization figure out what can work to keep model fidelity while creating space for success. They should be clear on what they want to ask of their partners up-front, so that partners can make adjustments where possible to make the collaboration work. With clarity, they will be able to meet with potential new partners and say: “Here’s what we want you to adopt because of x/y/z, and here’s where adaptation works really well.” Agreeing on this upfront will help drive success later. So, while nonprofits wanting to work in others’ spaces many need to shave some corners off of that square peg, it would be useful if partners make their holes a little bigger. That will bridge the adopt-vs-adapt gap.