Partners can be fundamental to the delivery of a program. The best partners can fill particular gaps at the right time, so it is important to plan out your needs so that you can reach out to them early on. Partners may help in the planning, delivery and/or evaluation stage(s). The array of partners involved may evolve as your program evolves. Be aware that some partners may not be available over the long term.

With a physical activity or healthy eating program, your organization shares a common objective with a number of organizations in fields such as chronic disease prevention, community space, local planning and public health. There are also a myriad of partnering possibilities with other organizations with specific goals in common: sports and recreation centres for physical activity programs; community gardening networks, local community kitchens and food banks for healthy eating programs.

“Transportation and geographic challenges mean you cannot always engage those who are interested. However, we hired a student to outreach to connect with other community organizations (e.g., dance studios and baseball teams) and stores (for donations to overcome equipment barriers for low-income clients). This also served to de-stigmatize participation of clients in the community. We have developed a resource list from this to allow engagement of clients in their own communities. Some may just want to participate in their own community versus a peer support environment” (Susan Roach, Program Manager, Haldimand-Norfolk Resource Centre).

Partnering is not only a way to leverage resources in your community and to increase access for your clients. It is also an opportunity to de-stigmatize mental illness and share your organization’s expertise.

“I think it [learning] was very informal, particularly to the chef [from the Peterborough County Health Unit], just to see our clients and how they act in a group and how they did really well in a group… I think it broke down barriers, you know, issues around stigma for him that he will pass around to his organization. It was a very positive experience for him” (Food for Mood program leaders, CMHA Peterborough Branch).

Involvement in these kinds of focused activities is also a great way to help build clients’ sense of competence and self-esteem by engaging in activities that do not revolve around their mental illness. As well, it gives community members an opportunity to see people with mental illness participating successfully in programs, with the same expected of them as others who do not have an identified mental illness.

Minding Our Bodies pilot site leaders observed that community partnerships created in the development of a healthy eating program had the secondary effect of sensitizing community members to the link between healthy eating and mental health, while at the same time providing valuable services to the participants. Often the programs were able to flourish by offering services in exchange for help or favours. And informal partnerships were created with other programs and specialists in different parts of the province: e-mailing recipes for a cookbook, providing computer support over the phone, and having a teleconference presentation that included a pharmacy and diabetes clinic are all creative examples of how community involvement can be expanded beyond the immediate geographic location of the program.

Program leaders and case managers involved in the healthy eating pilots also described gaining valuable insight into the connection between healthy eating and mental health as a result of their participation, and that they began incorporating physical activity and healthy eating goals into individual treatment plans even for clients who didn’t participate in their healthy eating program.

“I think that in general there is broader awareness now, like the side-effects of medication on our clients have such a significant impact on their health and we really need to incorporate healthy eating, physical health goals with our clients so that they can be healthy… They’re hugely at risk for these illnesses, heart problems, diabetes…” (Food for Mood program leader, CMHA Peterborough Branch).

Who Can You Partner With?

Fitness, Dance and Yoga Centres

Local fitness, dance/fitness and yoga centres could provide space, training, leadership/instruction for the delivery of the program.

Examples: YMCA; YWCA (e.g., to talk about their subsidized food box program), community recreation centre; community park; dance, yoga or dance fitness program (e.g., a Zumba, Nia or yoga instructor could teach a free session and give out a pass for one free lesson).

“Previously we had six YMCA membership cards for clients to borrow, so it made sense to expand our relationship. The local YMCA initially wanted information about clientele. They wanted to know that clients will be OK, and so we educated with them about mental health and justice. It is part of their mandate to improve access to this special population. The Y gets to reach out to this population with our support to the clients.”

Chronic Disease Education / Outreach Specialists

Chronic disease education / outreach specialists could offer educational presentations, information, training, co-delivery, space and/or cross-promotion.

Examples: Programs of the Canadian Diabetes Association or Diabetes Education Centres in Ontario, Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, the Arthritis Society.

In the CMHA Peterborough Food for Mood program, they formed an informal partnership with a diabetes clinic, which provided ideas for educating participants around such issues as label reading, menu planning and portion control.

Community (Health) Specialists

Other community (health) specialists could offer educational sessions and expertise for healthy eating programs on such topics as healthier cooking options; food safety (e.g., washing vegetables, avoiding cross-contamination, hand washing); food handling, storage and preservation; label reading; food shopping and menu planning; budgeting; Canada’s Food Guide; the impact of food and physical activity on mood; the importance of healthy eating, first aid for heat-related injuries and kitchen safety (avoiding burns and fires).

Examples: A local pharmacist, a public health inspector and the fire department all provided education sessions to participants of the Algoma Public Health and Bee Hive program. In the Northern Initiative for Social Action (NISA) Mood is Food pilot, a dietitian from a local hospital reviewed recipes to go in a cookbook they were creating, and community food advisors helped to run their workshops.

Public Health Departments

Public health departments could offer educational presentations, information, training, recruitment and promotion opportunities, or take on volunteers to help run the program.

“They [the local department of public health] were there from the beginning: before the proposal, they knew the health needs of the community and demographics. They facilitated training for MOBATs (Minding Our Bodies Action Team) to work on peer development and the role of peer support, and [planning] what the project would need. They exchanged knowledge through group informational sessions led by smoking cessation specialists. And they took part in our evaluation” (Energize your Mind, Body and Spirit program leader, CMHA Thunder Bay Branch).

“I think the [Peterborough District] Health Unit stepped up a bit more than I had anticipated. I expected it to be more of a resource or information gathering kind of meeting with them, but they ended up offering to run it jointly” (Food for Mood program leader, CMHA Peterborough Branch). The health unit booked the site for the cooking sessions (a kitchen in a church basement), their chef ran the first four cooking sessions and they paid for the groceries for these four sessions.

Example: Algoma Public Health provided in-kind donations for “freebies” for the participants of a healthy eating program, including tote bags, Christmas bag goodies and cooking thermometers.


Local media could offer the necessary promotion and outreach, as well as educate the community around healthy eating, physical health and their relationship to mental health issues through their coverage.

“We contacted the paper and one of the reporters came over (after the program had started). They helped us promote to the community and solicit donations” (Search for Fitness program leader, Search Community Mental Health Services).

Example: NISA often gets food from the hospital next door, which may constitute the only meal some participants get in a day, but the hospital usually sends high-carb, high-fat items. A Food is Mood program leader mentioned this to a local newspaper in a interview. The hospital then started to include vegetables in the food they sent. While the leader wasn’t sure if the change was due to the article, it was a positive change that could have likely emanated from this discussion.

Local Businesses

Local businesses may provide free or discounted incentive prizes, fitness instruction and/or materials for your physical activity program (e.g., fitness apparel, sports equipment) or snacks and cooking supplies for your health eating program.

“We have had to be creative in our program due to the fact [that we] are running the program without any additional funding. We have had donations from different organizations which include pedometers, water bottles, dry-fit t-shirts and reflective flashing lights (for walking at night). We also had a $500 donation toward the purchase of our t-shirts and gym bags” (Search for Fitness program leader, Search Community Mental Health Services).

Another example is illustrated by the Drive for 5 running program offered through the Toronto branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association. They received a lot of resources from a store focused on runners: The store provided donations of gently used running shoes, runner quality t-shirts and 16 medals. The manager presented to clients on shoe-fitting and injury prevention. There was also an information session for beginner runners.

Local businesses can also provide in-kind donations to give to clients participating in a healthy eating program. For example, in a program run through Algoma Public Health and the Bee Hive consumer initiative in Elliot Lake, participants were given small gift bags (at a cost of $5/bag) at the last celebratory session. Mostly donated items included a food handling safety calendar, water bottle, measuring cup and spoons, a colander. Other in-kind donations included hairnets from the local Tim Horton’s and food donated from staff.

Local Community Organizations

Other mental health agencies in the community may have space, other programs, interested clients, training, staff that can donate their time, etc.

Example: In the Algoma Public Health and Bee Hive program, a family health team made client referrals to their team for smoking cessation and nicotine replacement therapies, and CMHA Sault Ste. Marie Branch provided stress cards in-kind.

Local community spaces may be available for sports and other recreation programs; for example, in church basements and parks. Some fees or permits may be required. Healthy eating programs could be run out of kitchen space from a local retirement facility, another local community (soup) kitchen or a church basement.

Local high schools, colleges, universities may have students interested in part-time or seasonal work or internships.

Local planning tables could provide a means to advocate for affordable and accessible recreation opportunities for people with mental illness.

Community groups/Aboriginal centres could become valuable partners, particularly if they reflect similar cultural backgrounds to participants.

Example: An expressed goal of the NISA Minding Our Bodies program was to build new partnerships with local Aboriginal communities, as NISA has members who are Aboriginal and the program leader felt that this was a marginalized group they wanted to support. Through their partnership with the local Aboriginal friendship centre, they were able to use a kitchen site at a local grocery store, arranged by the centre. With this connection, staff also learnt how the Aboriginal community has a higher level of diabetes than the rest of the population, and about the number of people who have diabetes and heart disease that is attributable to their psychotropic medication.

How You Can Support Your Partners?

Your mental health agency could provide to other partners:

  • support for a population that an organization would otherwise have trouble reaching
  • cross-promotion of organization’s activities and resources
  • support fulfilling the organization’s mandate
  • expertise in how to support people with mental illness
  • educational materials and resources
  • opportunities for volunteer/student involvement
  • shared space and other resources
  • supporting clients to find community programs that match their needs (brokering): Haldimand-Norfolk Resource Centre co-ordinated this matching to ensure a good fit and to reduce the frustration of other organizations receiving individual calls from clients
  • case managers to provide one-on-one support to participants coping with social anxiety or other issues that affect their ability to participate and connect with others.

Related Resources

For partnership resources, see the Resource Library.

For more examples of local partnerships, see program descriptions in the Program Directory.