A Recipe for Empathy Partnerships

Learning Ecosystems and Leadership December 08, 2020

At what stage in an education or learning partnership, should we put people before the partnership? The assertion that all professional partnerships must be devoid of an emotional connection to the other partners limits us in authentically and qualitatively reaching our project goals in sustainable and innovative ways. Much has been written around the importance of partnerships, including UNESCO’s emphasis that ‘partnerships are a key enabler for meeting global challenges and generating sustainable change and long-lasting impact’. It is clear and proven time again that by working in partnerships rather than in isolation, learning and education professionals can enhance our impact in communities through the leveraging of resources, expertise, and competencies.  

For many learning cities like Wyndham, partnerships in various forms have been firmly embedded in city strategies and action plans, particularly on a local level.  Yet many professionals do not know how to embed empathy in partnerships and support solidarity during times of adversity and hardship, as well as in more favorable times of prosperity and peace.

Here is the 3-step plan we follow as we develop our empathy partnerships: 

1. Assessment and Design: Initial Establishment of Partnerships Driven by Empathy

The worldwide response to COVID-19 shows the importance of consciously incorporating solidarity and empathy the design of our collective responses. In Wyndham’s Learning Community Team, we have seen firsthand how response and recovery from adversity are more profound when we apply the model of empathy partnerships and when we put people first within those partnership. 

This year our role as partnership brokers required diplomacy and kindness. In establishing our empathy partnerships, we needed to be quick responders, cultural wizards, and openhearted in our ways of reaching out and connecting. Particularly for diverse education and learning partnerships that might include a fusion of arts and community groups, educational institutions, government bodies and other diverse groups, empathy can be the common factor that draws the collective together. And the catalyst for rethinking such partnerships and bringing resources and people together in non-traditional ways in 2020? COVID-19. This non-conventional way of operating as a local government may seem outside the professional norm of most learning city professionals, but such a confronting year has called for a different understanding of what forms successful, durable, and resilient partnerships. By consciously putting people before the partnership entity model, we purposefully minimized the classic bureaucracy and red tape of working within and with a government agency and were forced to thus innovatively design and establish partnerships. 

2. Implementation: Rolling Out Shared Projects Using Empathy Partnerships 

As shared projects start to roll out, the empathy partnership model enables actors to feel more comfortable sharing their stressors and challenges in a timely manner when adversity hits. This can ultimately save a partnership project. Sharing also supports a better model of resilience and recovery when partners know they can be transparent in sharing their needs without the preconceptions and judgment of other partners. How can we then strengthen our partners’ understanding that showing empathy and vulnerability is not only acceptable but a key element to supporting response and recovery in a crisis? By leading with example.

An intrinsic part of the Wyndham Learning Community team’s ‘business as usual’ approach and a key outcome of our strategy is based on harnessing and maintaining robust partnerships. This meant that when COVID-19 hit, we immediately applied this ‘empathy’ lens to our work and as such, our partnerships were able to remain strong, empathetic, and authentic.

What is the ‘magic’ recipe for maintaining a good partnership? While the classical components of having a clear project scope and roles, good timing and broad consultation around which partners can be approached for specific projects are important, these then need to be combined with a lens of compassion and understanding.

For example, each of the Global Learning Festival partners we worked with came from different countries and cultural contexts and were in different stages of their COVID-19 response and recovery process. In the midst of implementing our partnerships, we needed to show ongoing compassion, empathy, and understanding when learning and education programs and festivals were delayed or canceled due to teams being redeployed, people losing their jobs, people being unwell (some affected by COVID-19 itself), others loosing or having to care for loved ones. Our flexibility had to reflect an understanding that partnerships cannot only take a professional stance when the personal has directly affected so much of the professional. The two cannot and should not any longer be separated. 

We facilitated interactions with global partners as part of our Global Learning Festival project and supported the various learning cities and communities with their decision-making and rethinking process using the empathy partnership model. Indeed, many of the different partners running their own learning festivals incorporated shared ideas from around the world thanks to the new collaborative platform we created. This, in turn, created resilience through flexibility, and a newly emerged support network for recovery and rethinking journeys through this empathy partnership lens. 

As highlighted by Kearns, one of the six steps towards sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is prioritizing mental health and wellbeing. Our team proactively engaged with others in order to be a part of their success story, including openly focusing on their wellbeing and supporting mental health. For us, healthy partnerships are not just about powering through projects in a collaborative way but rather caring about the people and their health and wellbeing within the partnership itself. 

3. Evaluating Empathy Partnerships

How does one evaluate empathy in partnerships? While we have used tools such as the Collective Impact Assessment Tool (CIAT) to measure how we are tracking in creating purposeful partnerships, how we have designed our partnerships is harder to articulate. Our use of the Most Significant Change (MSC) Technique has provided us a way to articulate stories of change from the empathy partnerships model that is not easily captured through other data gathering sources such as surveys and quantitative information such as attendee numbers. Since the parameters of measuring empathy can be so hard to capture, MSC is a useful evaluation tool to highlight how stakeholders hold different values of what that success may look like.   

While these three steps are just a start, every partner in every project can consciously adopt a compassionate lens when planning developing and assessing a new partnership. For us, our partnerships became our lifeline to recovery in the most empowering and humbling way. When all partnership members work in such a way, empathy becomes woven within the very nature of how the partnership is designed, operated, and evaluated.