What are transformative partnerships and what do they do? An interview with Fletcher Beaudoin, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at PSU

MBK: What are transformative partnerships and how do they differ from “regular” partnerships?

FB: Transformative partnerships for sustainability overcome historic and structural barriers to center a sustainability transformation, or change. These partnerships are designed in a way that changes the organizations so that they can do the work necessary to advance the transformation. In other types of partnerships, such as strategic partnerships, you’re really maintaining the core essence of the partnering organizations, and just finding ways for them to exchange resources better, whereas in a transformative one, you are changing who you are so that you can get to bigger goals.

MBK: Why do you think we need transformative partnerships?

FB: Our world is facing increasingly complex challenges that require multiple organizations to work together in deep ways to get to the bottom of the issues and figure out how to work on them. Transformative partnerships allow us to see what the core roots of these problems are, and then also act as the organizing mechanisms for going after them. So these partnerships are critical to ensuring that we are on the right path, that we are having those hard conversations up front, so that we really understand what is motivating these issues, and then we are also committing to doing the work that gets us to fundamentally different outcomes. Doing that work means we may have to change our priorities, our goals, who we are, down to the fundamental structures that have supported our organizations in the past.

MBK: Can you give me an example of how this might work?

FB: A good example is ISS’s work with the City of Portland on climate, when we launched the Climate Action Collaborative. We came together to figure out how best to use PSU’s assets--our students, faculty and staff--to support direct action on the City’s Climate Action Plan; where the energy of the university could be deployed to help make changes in decisions, policies and investments related to climate action. First, we brought together a few individuals from both organizations to examine the context that each organization sat in - what real constraints that both organizations faced, and what resources they had. Instead of just jumping into a project, we began by understanding the context in which we were going to be working. Then, we determined what new structures and processes needed to be put into place that centered the challenges and would allow us to make a meaningful and unique contribution.

MBK: So, determining the context is the first step in creating a transformative partnership?

 FB: Transformative partnerships elevate an investment in the partnership itself--the relationship, the contexts, the history of the organizations working together--instead of just jumping into the specific problem using the structures and relationships of the past. Instead, we fully excavate that history and how the groups work together, getting clarity on where there are alignments and challenges, and then create structures that can empower actual transformation. Transformation relies on deep relationships and clear understanding of what is needed to make a unique impact together, rather than just creating a new transaction.

MBK: How do you find partners who are willing to invest in this model?

FB: It’s tricky, because it requires a significant upfront cost. Sometimes, you have to start taking action with a partner before you can back into some of these bigger questions: It’s not always a linear process. There needs to be enough trust and a clear understanding of the value proposition in order to invest that level of energy into a long-term relationship. To do this work, you really need to be willing to jump in. Sometimes partners realize they are not committed to the investment required by a transformative partnership. Getting to this realization as early as possible is best because it saves time and energy for all parties.

MBK: So, you noted that the upfront cost is a risk… What are some potential benefits of this model?  

FB: You can develop projects and ways of working that are deeply motivating to the participants and connect to the core motivations of the organizations, and build relationships that grow and evolve over time. You create a scenario that allows organizations to give more than they normally do, which is critical to doing something big together. As trust increases, so does the durability of the partnership, so you can work through challenges and conflicts more nimbly -- with high levels of trust, disagreements are not deal-breakers, but opportunities to learn. And this model also allows for space and time to reflect on activities and improve on them, thereby creating a platform for long-term change.

MBK: What do transformative partnerships mean for the future of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS)?

FB: We are going to look for more relationships that allow us to center big change, and create platforms that weave faculty, students, and staff into these long-term change trajectories. Transformative partnerships are highly inclusive, and pull on the strengths of a wide variety of people and perspectives in order to make really big change happen. For ISS, it’s about creating more of those spaces.

MBK: What other benefits might this work provide for PSU?

FB: It could put PSU on the map for doing something distinctive as an institution in terms of focusing on how we actually organize and demonstrate impact in our research and education. This work has the potential to make Portland more vibrant, more equitable, more livable, and to make PSU a magnet for faculty and students who want to learn how to create transformational change.