The mandate for partnerships -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The mandate for partnerships

By Marty Kooistra

“A person working alone has all the power of social dust.”—Saul Alinsky, pioneering U.S. grassroots community activist[1]

The alliance mandate

As compelling as this quote is when applied to individuals, it becomes even more so when applied to organizations. This might seem contradictory. Organizations are, by definition, groups of people working together. But consider our own work. Historically, Habitat has been a very “entrepreneurial” organization, using rapid worldwide growth of its programs and volunteer base to serve as many communities as possible. Now that it has a broad global presence, Habitat can focus on significantly increasing the housing impact it makes in each of those communities. Leaders from throughout the Habitat movement realize that the scope of the affordable housing problem—and poverty itself—is so vast that Habitat can’t possibly make the necessary impact on its own.

As a result, partnerships and alliances have risen to prominence in Habitat’s current strategic plan. This is possible because Habitat no longer thinks of itself as the controlling hub of a wheel, but rather as one of the wheel’s many spokes (or “nodes”). Each node represents an organization contributing uniquely but cooperatively to a central focus on poverty. Habitat’s crucial role is that of housing “catalyst,” sparking awareness about housing and encouraging coordinated, effective action.

A common alliance language

“Partnerships,” “alliances,” “collaborations,” “cooperations,” “allegiances.” Terminology can present challenges to forming and maintaining working relationships and even to studying the subject. Habitat for Humanity University’s Strategic Alliances course suite[2] suggests the following basis for a common language:

“…These words generally reflect the level of intensity of the relationship and whether it is formal or informal in nature. Just as with individuals, relationships between organizations can range from formal and long-lasting to informal and transitory. Both formal and informal relationships can be developed into strong alliances that deliver value to both parties. … We use the term ‘alliance’ and define it as ‘a mutually beneficial relationship between two or more entities to achieve results more likely to be achieved together than alone.’ An alliance is not a fleeting relationship defined by a single donation or volunteer workday. An alliance is also not static, but represents a changing relationship, with its ups and downs. Therefore, a key part of success in this changing relationship is constant evaluation and ongoing learning for all parties.”

An alliance may be appropriate when…

  • ...others are able to perform an aspect of the work more effectively, more efficiently and in a manner compatible with Habitat’s values and methods.
  • …it would establish a continuum of care providing all types of housing to both the formal and informal sectors (including emergency shelter, transitional, rental, ownership and supportive housing).
  • …the shared goal is community transformation and the elimination of poverty through a holistic approach (incorporating, for example, economic, health, educational and housing interventions).
  • …it is necessary to transform the systems that prevent families in the informal sector from achieving livelihood.[3] These are just some of the situations in which an alliance might be called for.

Appropriate alliances allow Habitat to focus on what it does best while still providing a comprehensive solution that maintains the integrity of the Habitat ministry. The net result is almost too good to be true: Habitat achieves scale by serving a greater number of families, and does so in a more effective and efficient way.

Alliance challenges

Forming alliances is one matter. Maintaining them through execution is another. Success requires a deep understanding of one’s organization and the ability to hold important tensions in correct balance. For example, it is necessary to set aside an organization’s self-interest yet explicitly articulate and consistently uphold its non-negotiables. Likewise, a common value proposition must drive performance, but alliance members must contribute to the success of each ally and not just to achieving the cause. Therefore, valid evaluation metrics reflect not just outcomes, but the health of the relationship as well.

In some parts of the world, Habitat for Humanity’s brand makes it a magnet. This, too, presents challenges. HFHI has created a partnership analysis group to review potential alliances objectively and to create tools to allow the entire Habitat ministry to do the same.


[1] Winer, M. and Ray, K. (1994). The Collaboration Handbook: Creating, Sustaining and Enjoying the Journey. (Amherst H. Wilder Foundation/Fieldstone Alliance, p. 33).
[2] Strategic Alliances (
[3] U.K. Department for International Development (
[4] Wei-Skillern, J. and Marciano, Sonia, (2008). “The Networked Non Profit,” Stanford Social Innovation Review. Spring 2008.

Marty Kooistra is the senior director of Global Program Design and Implementation for HFHI. He has served in various capacities with Habitat for Humanity for more than 16 years, including local affiliate leadership, field supervision and support, and headquarters program and curriculum development.

In the fall of 2004, he was a Fellow at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, where he conducted research and analysis positioning Habitat for Humanity in the context of affordable housing initiatives and, with Professor Jane Wei-Skillern[4] of the Harvard Business School, researched the role of networks in multi-site nonprofits. He holds a bachelor’s degree in social work from Dordt College.

He may be contacted at