The How and Why of Developing Strategic Partnerships

For years, the federal government and private foundations have been telling nonprofits that they have to “coordinate, cooperate, and interface.”  While that is certainly the case, let’s explore why you need to form strategic partnerships in the first place. What are the essential questions you need to ask when forming these partnerships? What are the costs and benefits? Who should you align yourself with and why?

Since the 1960s the federal government has been providing billions of dollars per year to non-profit organizations to provide services in local communities. In fact, out of $750 Billion per year that flows into the nonprofit sector, over $500 Billion comes from government and public funding sources. You might say that the largest philanthropist in the country is Uncle Sam (even though the money comes mostly on a  contract basis, rather than a donation or grant basis).   The government and all funding sources are looking at getting the most value out of their money, so they are interested in seeing their dollars leveraged by way of their grantees working in partnership with others to accomplish their mission.

Organizations can form strategic collaborations for the following reasons:

  • FUNDING – This is probably the driving force of most partnerships. The government almost always want you to “partner” with another organization.   Frequently, national foundations such as the Roberts Woods Johnson want you to partner with a local government, school, university, or hospital. But remember: don’t partner with a group just for funding; the partnership must benefit your mission.
  • CREDIBILITY – If you are a small organization, a start-up, or one that does not have a lot of “power people” on your board, you may need to partner with a group that has these assets.
  • KNOWLEDGE AND SKILLS – If you are seeking to expand your capacity, your knowledge, and your skills in certain areas, partner with an organization that already has these elements. I have a friend that works with children of parents who have cancer. He partners with large cancer associations who open up doors to hospitals for him all over the country where he sets up support groups for these children.

The following are some tips and approaches you may want to consider when forming strategic partnership. Our good friend, Andy McSheffrey, a consultant out of Chicago has provided the first four tips this week. He says that the four essential questions that need to be answered in any collaborative agreement that involves money are:

1)        Who are you as a person, an organization, or a group within an organization ?   It is important to know exactly what your values are, both personally and professionally to understand if they are in synch with this person and organization.

2)        How does this benefit me or how will you make me money?   What is in it for me?    It is critical to be clear about your self-interest and what you need and want out of the partnership.

3)        What do you stand for?   Standards, principles, values, accountability.   These are core issues that are the basis of your organizational foundation and the foundation of a potential partnership.

4)       What is the reputation of the organization with which you will partner?  It is important to know the credibility and reputation, image, and brand of the organization.

Andy says: “It has been my experience that if you can answer all of these questions without hesitation and with complete honesty, you are in great shape to open a conversation involving partnering.   If you cannot, you should examine what it is you cannot answer and set out to find that answer before you approach someone to propose supporting you in any venture you are considering.

5)   Do NOT enter into a partnership just for the money.   Don’t let the money drive your organization. Balance out the money with the mission. If you don’t, you will certainly have mission drift and will start to lose credibility with the core stakeholders in your organization.

6)  Allow enough time for the relationship to turn into a partnership . Go out to lunch and get to know the principle people; spend time getting to know their personal and organizational values to see how they mesh with yours .

7)     Work with your leadership – Don’t get ahead of your key leadership. The board must thoroughlly evaluate the partnership opportunities before you make a commitment to a partnership. If it is your first time partnering with another group to submit a grant proposal, make sure you are attentive to the process followed by your organization.

8)    Mergers takes time If you are trying to form an organizational merger with another organization realize this usually takes two to three years and may require you to bring in a facilitator to separate out the ‘real’ issues; to deal with the egos involved; and to help structure the planning process.

9)   Selecting potential partners Select partners that add to your strength and credibility; that can bring new knowledge and expertise to the table; and that are better connected with people and power than you are .   Also, make sure that both of your visions and missions have at least some basis of commonality .

10)    EVALUATE, EVALUATE, EVALUATE This is a critical step in the process. Make sure you are constantly evaluating how the partnership is going and are clear on the expectations of the collaboration. On a quarterly basis you should sit down with each other and go over all of the details, successes and failures, and next steps in the partnership .