Establish Partnerships

Collaborating with a variety of organizations can help strengthen the planning process for a community-based oral health program for older adults and can expand the program’s impact. The benefits of forming partnerships and coalitions are far reaching and might include one or any combination of the following.

  • Improving understanding of local needs and assets
  • Maintaining, improving, and expanding the scope and range of oral health services available to older adults
  • Leveraging diverse talents and resources to find creative solutions
  • Garnering more visibility, public recognition, and influence for a particular issue
  • Obtaining referrals for new patients
  • Avoiding services duplication in a geographic area
  • Acquiring feedback from clients and your community to evaluate the program
  • Marketing and sustaining the program over time

The effort to build effective partnerships involves three main steps.

  1. Identify stakeholders
  2. Approach potential partners
  3. Sustain partnerships over time

Identify Stakeholders

“The value of a backbone organization has been critical to empowering coalition partners and is the engine that fuels the creativity of building solutions to access to oral health care for older adults.” – Mary Jane Carothers, Coalition Chair and Vice President, Quality Improvement and Clinical Affairs for Iowa Health Care Association

  • Make a list of all stakeholders that could add value to your program, brainstorm the specific role or roles each stakeholder could play, and specify how your program could benefit them. For example, local hospitals might benefit from reduced emergency room visits from uninsured people with oral pain, and local health departments might be interested in improving the oral health of their uninsured constituents.[1]<
  • Make a list of all stakeholders that might oppose your program. Your organization should investigate why these stakeholders might present issues in the future and should proactively engage them.
  • Identify issues that might limit individual partner involvement (e.g., administrative, legal, financial) and, if necessary, make a plan to overcome these barriers.
  • Identify champions in your community as potential partners. Champions are knowledgeable about oral health and can lead the charge in developing your oral health program.

[1] Stakeholders have an interest in your program but aren’t necessarily partners. Partners are stakeholders with which you end up forming mutually beneficial and productive relationships.

Approach Potential Partners

  • Determine the number of partners you want involved in your program. More partners can enhance your ability to provide services, but planning meetings and achieving group consensus can be logistically challenging when too many are involved.
  • Rank potential partners based on how much you need them and their expected level of involvement. Some partners might be more involved in program day-to-day operations whereas others might simply want to stay informed. Having a mix of partner types maximizes the number of partners you can engage.
  • Outline compelling reasons why each potential partner should join your effort based on the partner’s unique interests.
  • Think specifically about how you’ll appeal to each potential partner, including how the partner can benefit from participation in your program. To tailor your approach, research the issues or organizations with which each partner has been involved. Practice your proposal and prepare answers to anticipated questions or objections.
  • Determine the best method to initiate contact with potential partners. When deciding among face-to-face contact, phone calls, letters, and email, consider the advantages of each approach and the likelihood of responses.
  • After your initial approach, plan next steps according to each potential partner’s response.
    • For a “Yes” response, follow up within a reasonable timeframe to explain in greater detail what you want from the partner.
    • For a “Maybe” response, brainstorm what can be adjusted to get the potential partner on board (e.g., changing the proposed role or the timeframe of the commitment).
    • For a “No” response, decide whether you’ll reach out again at another time or if it’s best to not pursue the partnership any further.
  • Establish a lead organization (backbone organization), when coordinating your program’s partnership, to
    • Provide structural support and assistance across all participating organizations and stakeholders,
    • Guide the program’s overall vision and approach, and
    • Mobilize funding, among other functions.

Backbone organizations can take multiple forms and depend on the type and structure of your program. See the Collaboration for Impact’s website for more information on backbone organizations.

Sustain Partnerships over Time

  • Ensure that you’ve collaborated with all involved partners to develop your vision, mission, and goals. Transparency about your program’s intentions is critical to building successful partnerships.
  • Show your appreciation for partners frequently, both privately and publically. Gratitude may take the form of award ceremonies or ongoing incentives for engagement. See Chapter 41 of the University of Kansas’s Community Tool Box for more information.
  • Plan how you can help your partners. Offer your assistance or useful expertise to ensure the partnerships are mutually beneficial.
  • Keep partners informed of new developments in your program and recent measures of success. Show them the positive impact your program is having on a continued need in your community. To gain insight and keep key partners engaged, involve them in evaluation plans.
  • Check in with partners periodically about changing interests or priorities affecting them and how these changes could relate to their commitment to or involvement in your oral health program for older adults. Changing roles or focus areas for partners might be necessary to keep them committed and engaged.

Program Spotlight: Elks Mobile Dental Program

This case study provides additional information on establishing partnerships based on the experiences of the Elks Mobile Dental Program. Established in 1962, the program operates three mobile dental units that deliver oral health services to people with developmental and physical disabilities in Missouri.

The Missouri Elks Benevolent Trust supplied upfront funding and conducted initial outreach to the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to help design and fund the Elks Mobile Dental Program. Donations to support the program also came from Elks member pledges, lodges, and ladies auxiliaries as well as the Elks National Foundation Annual Contribution. With funding set, the Elks Benevolent Trust and the Missouri DHHS contracted with the Truman Medical Center to operate the program. For several years in the 2000s, the Elks Benevolent Trust acted as the program’s sole financial sponsor because of state budget cuts, but the Elks Mobile Dental Program staff kept in touch with Missouri DHHS Bureau of Primary Care staff, as well as other previous program funders, to sustain the partnerships. Elks Mobile Dental staff sent monthly email newsletters with client testimonials and general program updates and continued to assist the partners. In forming and strengthening the partnerships, the Elks Mobile Dental Program emphasized the importance of using succinct outreach messages, looking for partners already interested in the target population, and tailoring resource requests. In 2013, the Missouri DHHS began funding the program again, which the Elks Mobile Dental Program staff attribute to their continued communication and relationship-building with DHHS staff.

Key Resources

The resources listed below provide additional guidance and support for establishing partnerships.

  1. University of Kansas’ Community Tool Box, Chapter 7, Toolkits 1 and 8 – This comprehensive resource has checklists and resources for communities to learn about assessment, planning, intervention, evaluation, and advocacy of community programs. Chapter 7: Encouraging Involvement in Community Work, Toolkit 1: Creating and Maintaining Partnerships, and Toolkit 8: Increasing Participation and Membership provide guidance for choosing community partners and maintaining relationships.
  2. Washington State Department of Health’s Community Roots for Oral Health: Guidelines for Successful Coalitions – This guide outlines critical tasks community organizations should complete as they form oral health coalitions, such as developing an action plan. The guide is organized in steps, but the introduction notes the process is generally not linear.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Basic Strategies for Collective Impact: Partnerships, Coalitions and Collaborations – This document outlines the different roles and activities of state-wide partnerships, coalitions, and collaborations
  4. Association of State & Territorial Dental Directors’ Best Practice Approach Report: State Oral Health Coalitions and Collaborative Partnerships (PDF) – This resource assesses the effectiveness of statewide oral health coalitions and collaborative partnerships, and provides examples to illustrate successful development of such partnerships
  5. Prevention Institute’s Developing Effective Coalitions: An Eight Step Guide (PDF) – This step-by-step guide to coalition building helps partnerships launch and stabilize successfully. It supports advocates and practitioners in every aspect of the process, including determining the appropriateness of a coalition, selecting members, and conducting ongoing evaluations.
  6. Collaboration for Impact’s The Backbone Organization – This resource outlines the various roles a backbone organization may play in collaborative partnerships, as well as misperceptions that communities may have about the role of a backbone organization. The Collaboration for Impact also provides a separate guide for building the “backbone infrastructure,” which includes details on funding, leadership and staff, and data collection.
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control: Partnership Tool Kit (PDF) – A set of guiding questions that community organizations can use as they advance through the four stages of partnership development.
  8. Association of State & Territorial Dental Directors’ Assessing Oral Health Needs: Seven-Step Model Worksheets (PDF) – The ASTDD developed four worksheets to aid organizations in conducting a needs assessment. Worksheet #1 lists potential organizations and agencies to partner with, and can be used to track contact information for potential community partners.