The pretense of many foundations to be “partners” of their grantees is at best a charming absurdity. The kinds of “partnerships” that result when one partner has a billion-dollar balance sheet and the other an annual five-figure deficit are the stuff of Divorce Court reruns. But our brief here involves not the idea of partnership, lopsided as that may be in this context, but the word-and especially its more feeble relative, the verb to PARTNER.
In the idealistic world of civic and charitable institutions, PARTNERSHIP has lately taken on the rosy mystique of the more mawkish fairy stories, with the nonprofit grantees in the role of Cinderella. “In this program,” says one princely foundation, “we invite our program partners to share in more than the funding of individual initiatives, but in a whole range of supportive interactions.”
The first mystery in that sentence is the peculiar phrase “program partners,” which turns out to be a euphemism for “grantees.” The next is those unspecified “supportive interactions,” in which a jaundiced eye might detect a “come-up-and-see-my-etchings” quality. But we have no time for such prurience here. The problem with this image of partnership is not so much that the intentions might not be honorable, but that the label is so broad that one can scarcely guess what intentions might be crouching behind it.
This ambiguity would be harmless enough, on a par with the gauzy endearments in Valentine cards, were it not for the inflated expectations to which the word gives rise on all sides. The expansive use of PARTNERSHIP now in vogue commonly implies that the “partners” share all manner of confidences and dreams, shoulder one another’s burdens, support each other in sickness and health, and so on. (In actual experience, veterans of such partnerships most often come away sadder but wiser about what happens to love when money steps in the door.)
The surprising fact is that, common as this blushing sentimentality has become, it most often goes unexamined.
Dictionaries and law books tend to take a far more detached and mathematical view of PARTNERSHIP, emphasizing explicit agreements in which control, expenses, profits, and losses are all divided in fixed proportion to each partner’s share in the capital and risk of the enterprise. That approach is true to the word’s roots-from the Latin partior, “to divide” -the same word that gave us “partition.” In this traditional sense, still common in the making of business agreements, the partnership consists not in the sharing of “supportive interactions,” but in the precise dividing of material interests, with each side knowing exactly how much of the common enterprise it owns and where its privileges and obligations lie. Strong fences, you might say, make good partners.
One sign that foundations take a more whimsical view of these matters is the popularity of the verb TO PARTNER, a breezy coinage rarely heard in the law offices where business deals are hammered out. In The Oxford English Dictionary, which traces the verb back to Shakespeare, nearly every example of its use refers either to light romance or to sport. Where large sums of money are involved, it seems, common sense would seek more concrete terms. So should foundations.