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Be a Maverick; Seek Out-of-the-Box Partnerships

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

By Dr. Kathryn K. Matthew

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of blogs by IMLS Director Dr. Kathryn K. Matthew on the power of partnerships.

We like stories about mavericks. We like to hear about how with perseverance and perhaps a little luck, a lone individual followed her or his dreams and, to quote Steve Jobs, “put a ding in the universe.” We like these stories because they sound like us. We see ourselves as that maverick at the center of the universe. Each of us does.

Except that’s not how the universe works.

The “uni” part of universe means “one.” As in one entity, one interconnected whole. That universe may go through waves of expansion and consolidation, but it remains “one.”

Steve Case’s recent book, “The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur's Vision of the Future,” outlines when and where mavericks are favored in the universe’s waves of expansion and consolidation. AOL was one of the first entities to draw together the disparate corners of the Internet universe. Case explains that he did that through partnerships; with IBM, with telecom companies, and ultimately with TimeWarner. According to Case, the first wave happened when AOL’s and other service providers’ efforts at building connections (literally and figuratively) worked. 

The second wave, as identified by Case, was when mavericks like Mark Zuckerberg and other innovators emerged. They built valuable services that pushed the connected few further ahead. 

We are now in a third wave where building partnerships is once again what will push us forward, especially for the nonprofit and public sectors that make up the museum and library communities.

To date, many different approaches to addressing complex, pressing social problems have been explored and mapped out. Now, it is about how to test and scale-up those efforts.

The challenge before us is how to capture our organizational expertise and connect it with other bodies of expertise.  How do we link our infrastructures and networks so that new ecosystems reverberate and flex within and across communities? Now we need to forge enduring connections built on collaborative problem solving and shared risks, resources, and skill sets. Partnerships.

As our partnerships mature, we can expect another wave of successful mavericks (maybe a fourth wave?) who will build on the connections and relationships we have made.

The evidence for this third wave within the library and museum universe is all around us. Many funders are also entering this third wave, seeking:

  • Projects that share communications, technology, or administrative expenses between partner organizations
  • Evidence of “scalability” that can expand impact beyond a single site
  • Blended “funding investments” into grant-making portfolios in order to manage risk
  • Definitions of success based on community-centered outcomes, rather than organizational outputs
  • Other funding collaborators to magnify their impact

We still like to tell stories about mavericks. If you listen closely, however, the response to the story is more about asking “why can’t we do that here?” instead of commenting that “she (or he) is such an inspiration.”  

That emphasis on “why not here?” is precisely why effective partnerships are not so much about individual mavericks. They are about creatively connecting what is happening “way over there” to here. Which is often not that far away even though history or perceptions might suggest otherwise. When I join gatherings of museums, libraries, and their community members I often hear: “we are just down the street from each other but have never really explored common areas before!” The third wave is building in communities large and small, rural and urban!

 

Dr. Kathryn K. Matthew was confirmed as IMLS Director in September 2015.