Strategic Relationships


“You can’t build a successful relationship if you don’t know why you’re considering partnering in the first place.”

Margaret Wheatley, Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future

Strategic relationships offer many benefits to state leaders and state systems building work. Strategic relationships can help with improving services and more effectively using resources. Critical to systems building, they form the basis for synergy—when two or more individuals can work together to achieve a result that is better than what either could have achieved individually. As statewide systems for early learning are being rewoven in the context of school readiness, equal access, and higher quality, strategic relationships provide state leaders with a critical resource—a greater ability to use multiple talents, diverse perspectives, and more creative and collaborative possibilities that yield sustainable results in an increasingly complex environment. When strategic relationships are developed and sustained on an ongoing basis, organizations can respond nimbly to emerging opportunities and needs. 

Strategic relationships can be essential to the strong and diverse communication networks that effective state early childhood leaders cultivate and maintain. For CCDF Administrators, combining strategic relationships to form these networks can include various stakeholders: public officials, public funders, philanthropic organizations, the provider community, statewide associations, advocates, and parents. Cultivating relationships on an ongoing basis as part of a network can stimulate collaborative problem-solving and implementation of systems building and change. Individuals who connect their strategic relationships in this “very down-to-earth, day-to-day way, make the world work.”[1] These relationships and networks can yield sustainable progress to resolve specific issues or take strategic advantage of opportunities, allowing for much bigger results and a smoother process to attain them. Additionally, strategic relationships that are embedded in networks “spread ideas and information … [and] connect all the dots that constitute the vast apparatus of government and influence and interest groups.”[2]


Before engaging in relationships, you should understand what each party sees as the opportunities, challenges, and benefits of the relationship. During this evaluation stage, understanding your motivation, goals, and those with whom you are developing the strategic relationship is critical.

Table 1 shares four questions that may be useful in exploring the mutual value of establishing or continuing a strategic relationship. Understanding the reason behind establishing and maintaining a strategic relationship helps make it successful and maximizes its impact for early childhood systems building. In general, following a strategic plan that outlines a shared vision helps ensure the answers to these questions align toward a common purpose. If a strategic plan is not in place for the state or territory, the process of developing a plan can help engage diverse stakeholders and form strategic relationships.

Table 1. Establishing the Value of Strategic Relationships

Exploring the Potential of Early Childhood Strategic Relationships
What early childhood policy or systems issue can this relationship address more effectively?
What needs of the systems will the relationship meet?
What positive change for children and families can this relationship create that neither partner has right now?
Is there an alignment of values, culture, and perspective between early childhood partners?

Understanding why people may or may not be interested in a strategic relationship becomes foundational to initiating and keeping people engaged in the relationship. To successfully engage with another person or organization, one must take the time to understand more about their challenges and goals. An initial meeting with a potential partner may be almost exclusively for this purpose. Future conversations can focus on sharing challenges and goals and finding mutually beneficial ways to work together.


[1] Gladwell, M. (1999). Six degrees of Lois Weisberg. The New Yorker, Jan. 11, 1999. New York: Condé Nast.

[2] Gladwell, M. (1999). Six degrees of Lois Weisberg. The New Yorker, Jan. 11, 1999. New York: Condé Nast.