Civil society organizations address some of the most complex social, economic and environmental issues of our time. In the same way that civil society organizations are created because people recognize that they must organize themselves with others to tackle these issues, collective efforts among organizations are also necessary in order to have a successful impact. This section of the toolkit takes as its starting point that civil society organizations’ public engagement efforts are an important element of bringing about social change, and that successful change happens through collective effort.

By working in partnership and collaboration, organizations are able to benefit from broader perspectives and expertise that are brought to the table. Working with others helps our public engagement efforts to have a greater reach and potentially save resources. The aim of this chapter is therefore not to discuss whether, but how, partnerships and collaboration can contribute to reaching the overriding goal of public engagement in Canada. It offers insights from the reflections of practitioners who have many years of experience working in, and researching, partnerships and collaboration in public engagement in Canada.

The discussions in this chapter refer to both partnerships and collaboration. It was a deliberate choice of the authors to refer to both terms because, although they overlap in meaning, they often differ in practice. When we paid attention to how we speak about them in practice, we noted that when referring to collaboration we tend to talk about relationships between organizations that are more informal. For example, we may collaborate with other like-minded organizations to implement International Development Week activities once a year. Another example may be collaboration that takes place through mutual efforts on a policy advocacy initiative, like Make Poverty History. These collaborations rarely involve a formal agreement, but may be based on discussions with like-minded organizations to keep one another appraised of the progress of individual or joint activities.

Partnerships was taken to describe a deeper form of collaboration, one that is often formalized. They may be prolonged joint efforts designed to achieve mutual, named goals. For example, public engagement efforts that revolve around ongoing linkages between Canadian civil society organizations (e.g. health care organizations) and southern civil society organizations (e.g. HIV/AIDS organizations) are seen as being a partnership between the organizations involved.
Partnerships may, however, also be short-term, revolving around a specific time-limited project requiring a more formalized relationship because organizations involved want to identify themselves as partners and want clear roles and responsibilities outlined. These may at times involve relationships between organizations that may not be automatically recognized as being like-minded. These also often involve funding support that requires a formalized contractual arrangement.

As the members of this knowledge hub discussed how these terms are similar and different, we recognized that all partnerships are a form of collaboration, but not all collaboration is a partnership. Some organizations may be more comfortable in a less formal collaboration when first working with another organization. This allows time to get to know one another and to avoid the higher risk involved in a more formal partnership. In addition, opportunities to collaborate may arise quickly, leaving organizations little time to take the steps to formalize a partnership.

Working in partnership and collaboration is not easy and is often more time-consuming than working alone. It requires a particular knowledge and skill set among the individuals involved, and a certain level of capacity within each of the organizations.

Regardless of which form of collective action organizations choose, partnerships and collaboration play an important role in our public engagement efforts. The insights in this section are written to support organizations as they reflect on how their partnerships and collaborations contribute to good practice in public engagement.