When it Comes to Partnership, the Mission is Critical

Center for NYC Neighborhoods
A team on people working on a project and looking at the plans on a table.

At the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, partnership is essential to our work. It resonates throughout all our work, especially when trying to build something new, like our Breakthrough Challenge innovation, Underwriting For Good.

Engaging with partners does not come without challenges, but ultimately makes our projects richer and more comprehensive, especially if the project by definition requires innovation and, for full impact, approval and adoption by multiple stakeholders.

Lesson #1 Mission matters.

Essential to a successful partnership is the shared understanding that the mission is critical.

Underwriting For Good aims to automate home mortgage underwriting processes that are currently manual to uplift and serve people of color, especially Black communities, who have been historically blocked from accessing equitable credit. Our innovation depends on fintech – cutting-edge financial technologies.

In a field where making money is often the top priority, we knew our partnerships had to prioritize the mission first and foremost.

Racial equity is at the core of our project. We are building tech to undo the bias that technology and lending have historically perpetuated. It is essential that our partners place an equal emphasis on the mission.

One of our partners, Mountain View Advisors, had already been working with us as a trusted advisor when we first entered the Housing Affordability Breakthrough Challenge. We had previously engaged MVA to provide expert mortgage and lending consulting services for our CDFI, Sustainable Neighborhoods.

Having an established history with MVA helped us move forward confidently with them: They knew how critical mission alignment was to us, and brought incredibly valuable mortgage lending knowledge to the table.

Our partnership demonstrates that subject matter expertise and value alignment can – and should – go hand in hand.

Lesson #2: Partnerships are iterative.

Healthy partnerships acknowledge that you have to be willing to put in more work than originally expected.

We are not promoting scope inflation. Instead, we’re acknowledging that change and growth are natural to every project. Ideas evolve when you actually start working on them.

Inevitably, new areas of work will be revealed and must be tackled when working to turn a theory into reality.

Innovating means uncovering new problems you can’t predict.

Partnerships are iterative, and iteration brings new dimensions. Good partnerships help you assess new challenges and incorporate them into your scope of work as needed.

Lesson #3: Know thyself.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a successful partnership depends on a willingness to admit the limits of your knowledge.

The best partnerships bring complementary yet different skills and knowledge to the table, which can shed new light on a project.

Successful partnerships supplement and complement each other. We should interact like a Venn diagram instead of a perfect circle.

Rethinking the RFP Process

Our selection process for our tech partners illustrates all three of these partnership lessons.

Initially, we planned to issue individual RFPs for each tech component of the Underwriting For Good project. However, as a team we quickly realized it would be beneficial for vendors to respond to the three components together.

By combining their RFP responses, prospective vendors could review all the components at one time and see how they interact. They could then vie for more than one component, if they felt it was in their wheelhouse.

In fact, one vendor applied for the first RFP and made it to the interview stage, but when we extended the response time to allow for a combined response to all of the RFPs together, they were no longer in the running.

Giving vendors the opportunity to submit proposals for all RFPs at the same time gave us a much clearer picture of which vendors could meet our needs and understand how the tech components work together.

A series of meetings with vendors who had submitted proposals allowed us to identify good partners and answer key questions.

Who would grow with us?

Who understood our mission and would strive to prioritize it?

Who has the skillset to complement and overlap with our existing skillsets?

Who has the bandwidth and the knowledge base?

By collaboratively working through the RFP process together, and acknowledging our mistakes and course correcting, we were able to holistically evaluate tech vendors for one of – if not the – most significant partnership of this project.

The RFP and evaluation process for our tech vendors was hugely illuminating. It underscored that healthy partnerships are critical to the success of Underwriting For Good.

It also reinforced the foundation of a healthy partnership: mission focus, expansive thinking and understanding each other’s strengths.

We will continue to learn and iterate together with our partners to make sure Underwriting For Good is the best it can be.

Read: How Center for NYC Neighborhoods Makes Sure Innovation Thrives