Partners: An Untapped Asset for Organizations

April 10, 2017

Recently we have noticed that more and more of our clients are looking for training and guidance on building partnerships and strategic relationships. One reason for this increased interest might be due to shifts in private funding and the vulnerability of state and federal grants. Given these potential changes, the social sector is pivoting to be more resourceful and creative than usual in order to keep impact high in the communities we serve. Over my years of working and training on collaborations, I’ve learned that partnerships are often an untapped resource in communities.

At CRE we talk about the partnership continuum, with partnerships ranging from simple networking to a formal merger. Not all partnerships look the same. They can be as simple as two or more organizations coming together to share information or space, or as complex as making services from one organization available to the clients or stakeholders of another. It takes time when you meet someone new to determine how (or if) your organizations can be mutually beneficial to each other. It will take an investment in networking and talking to all types of people about your organization, what it does well, and the areas of work that would benefit – and the impact that could result – by partnering together.

So, how do you get started?

  • Leave your office and network: While it would be nice if potential partners just walked through your door and found you, that’s not usually how it happens. Attend other organizations’ events, open houses, and fundraisers, and speak with a range of people at each and every event to discover potential allies. Have your business cards ready or have some made if needed. The more people that know you and the great things your organization is doing – and the services, expertise, and clients you can share – the more likely they are to think of you and your organization when opportunities to partner or collaborate arise.
  • Know your pitch: Once you have made the commitment to network and market yourself and your organization, you need to know what you are going to say! What is great about your organization, program, or facilities? Nonprofits and their leaders often talk about what is lacking and forget to highlight what they have and can potentially share. Be prepared to succinctly say what you are excited about in your organization or program. What would make you an appealing partner? It is useful to think about the gaps or clients that you need help with, but make an effort to share the positive with a new person or organizational leader as well. People partner with people and organizations that have vibrant leaders who can communicate this effectively.
  • Be collaborative: Are you willing to give, as well as take? Yes, this is similar to a romantic relationship – are you or your organization open to dating first, getting to know each other, and then partnering? To receive the benefits of partnership, you have to be an organization or institution that values the spirit of working together with others for mutual gain, even if in the beginning there is no immediate gain. I had a guest speaker at an event who said you have to ‘carry collaboration in your heart’ to work well with others. Be prepared to share what might help other organizations and eventually you will find that doors open to those that see the value in working with your organization, program, and clients.

Once you find a potential partner, then what? While building a relationship, you can also discover how you can be strategically useful to each other. But what does it take to build strategic partnerships or collaborations that are an asset?

  • Keep talking and engaging: Like any other new relationship, building the kind of trust that will generate sharing and collaboration with a new professional colleague takes time. Do not give up if the meetings over coffee/tea don’t materialize something right away. You never know when mutual interests and opportunities will arrive. I have colleagues who make a point to meet with a contact once a month or once every two weeks even if they are not discussing strategic benefits each and every time. It’s the building of this relationship that will make it easier to help each other out in the future.
  • Discover complementary missions and self-interests: Every organization has values and an agenda that is important to them. What are the culture and issues that you and your organization value? It is important to communicate that with potential partners. Take the time for a site visit and see how your partners work. Does their style and manner seem like it will complement that of your organization? If it seems like a fit, then have a conversation and be transparent about what you need from the partnership, and ask them to disclose what they need. It is only by exploring this deeper level that you can identify a partnership fit. You may want to write and sign a mutual memorandum of understanding to clarify the objectives of the partnership, who will do what, by when, and for how long.
  • Create a pilot program or partnership: Be prepared to try and try again. Design a manageable partnership plan or program for three to six months and make sure this pilot has a clear beginning, middle, and end date. Monitor throughout and assess midway to identify what has been successful, and what is not working. Can the project or program be adjusted to work better for all involved? If not, plan a date to close it out, identify lessons learned and try something else. If it is successful, can it be expanded to a larger scale? Both sides should be prepared to monitor the health of the partnership incrementally (at least every three to six months). There is some risk in partnering, but even failed attempts can produce something worthwhile: there is always something to be learned for the next time with the same partner or someone new. Keep trying and don’t give up!

Partnerships are not always easy, and they won’t be an answer to all the challenges an organization faces. However, when you invest the time, do your due diligence, and find the right partner for your organization, it can be as beneficial as new funding — a “win win” for all involved.

By Consultant Andrea J. Rogers

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