The Power of Partnership

When Riane Eisler published The Power of Partnership in 2003, she described a new way of approaching competition in business, relationships, and society that stood in opposition to what she called the “domination model.”

The partnership model of cooperation as a means to excellence, she wrote, had the “power to nurture, to give life.”

When I created the Rock Creek Songbirds initiative in 2013, I had very little idea of the potential of partnerships. Most of my work experience had been in traditional companies with hierarchical structures, which enabled leaders who enjoyed giving orders and didn’t care what it took to “win.”

I discovered an alternative way that, while hardly unique, can serve as a model for fledgling nonprofits: launch a new initiative by contributing your skills, services and creativity and partnering with larger nonprofit organization to get it off the ground.

For the Songbirds project, I wanted to raise money to plant trees in Washington DC’s Rock Creek National Park, and undertake an environmental education outreach campaign to the city’s Latino population. Normally, that kind of project would mean establishing a non-profit, with its own board of directors and other time-consuming requirements. It could have taken years to get the idea off the ground.

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Wanting to get this project moving, I came up with an expedited route. Having worked part time for a small environmental organization and been involved in community-based volunteer campaigns to improve water quality meant that I had many connections in the DC metro area. One of those was a law professor who sat on the board of a national non-profit that shared my interest in habitat for migratory birds.

With his recommendation, that organization became my first partner and “fiscal sponsor,” which meant that it would pass through the funds I raised from grantors, in return for a small administrative fee.

An initial grant that I secured from the National Audubon Society put me in touch with its Washington DC chapter, which agreed to let me share space on its website to publicize the Songbirds initiative. The Songbirds project was designed specifically to improve habitat on the property of the National Park Service. In addition to issuing a permit to conduct plantings, NPS also contributed 50 trees to the area targeted by the Songbirds project.

The project also envisioned a strong connection with young people, so I reached out to a bilingual charter school, and public schools with large Latino student populations, which were happy to let me speak to the classes, and involve students in tree planting and trash clean-ups.

For some of the outside work, I needed adults and didn’t have the budget to hire laborers. Volunteer student groups from local universities filled many of my needs. I received a call in 2015 from a multi-national consulting firm, looking for a service-day opportunity for its employees. I was excited to discover that firm also had a charitable foundation, which donated $16,500 to buy trees and other materials for habitat restoration.

The Washington DC government’s Office on Latino Affairs responded to my idea to make a short film about the memories of immigrants about birds and nature in their countries of origin. The office gave me a grant to underwrite the film, because I was enhancing the lives of Latin senior citizens by not only improving this public space and making it more welcoming to songbirds but by interviewing and engaging with them.

Because the outreach campaign included residents at a condominium that bordered Rock Creek Park, the Songbirds project also benefitted from that building’s board, which wanted to repair the fence on the property line. This dilapidated fence was a ladder for invasive plants; it also was a point of entry for individuals who were trashing the park by using it for drinking and drugs, and even prostitution. I was able to act as liaison between the Park Service and the condo board to devise a win-win solution that contributed enormously while costing my project nothing.

Today, four years after the Songbirds project took flight, we’ve planted or protected more than 550 native trees and shrubs, raised almost $120,000 in grants or in-kind donations, logged 2,250 volunteer hours, and engaged 525 students and youth in environmental education events.  

This project has been enormously rewarding on so many levels, including providing lessons I can share with others. When starting up a new initiative:

1)     Leverage personal relationships. This includes shame-free, relentless networking with emails and phone calls, attending receptions and bar meet-ups when you’d rather be home watching Netflix. Promote your ideas to anyone who will listen.

2)     Never turn down an opportunity to provide a service. I made bird-watching presentations to kindergarteners, organized nature “art projects” for elementary schools, and escorted seniors on walks in the woods. Not only are these important educational opportunities, but you never know where they will lead in advancing the project.

3)     Maintain a big-tent strategy. Especially when seeking volunteers and or in-kind donations, it doesn’t make sense to exclude certain groups or individuals because they are not completely in line with your personal, political or other beliefs. You may end up winning new converts to your cause!

4)     Always remember the importance of an attitude of gratitude. Nothing pleases people more than being thanked or complimented. And always think twice before criticizing someone who’s trying to help, even if the error he or she makes seems really dumb. Find a way to turn your comment into a compliment!

This strategy has worked for me. It can work for you, too. Simply put, it’s all about the power of partnerships.

Steve Dryden is director of the Rock Creek Songbirds habitat restoration project and program manager for the Friends of Peirce Mill in Washington DC. Before becoming an environmental activist, he covered foreign policy and trade politics for Bloomberg News, the International Herald Tribune, and other publications. For more information on his current work: audubondc.org/rock-creek-songbirds