As the social sector increasingly recognizes the importance of addressing the root causes of systemic challenges, it is becoming more critical to form strong partnerships. Partnerships have myriad benefits for individual organizations—from boosting efficiency to growing their influence—but the true potential of partnerships is transformational. If we can forge meaningful partnerships, we can help change systems.
Yet forming a partnership that effectively brings distinct groups together—each with its own culture and agenda—takes hard, deliberate work. We’ve scanned leading practices across several organizations with whom we’ve worked and uncovered ways that organizations can go about building a strong base for partnerships. The steps we describe here are most applicable for partnerships between two or a small number of nonprofit organizations working to design or implement a specific program or initiative. Each step must be adapted to the unique situation of the partners.
As you work to establish or strengthen a partnership, consider these six practical steps.
1. Build Trust
Many leaders with extensive experience developing and implementing partnerships agree: Trust is the most important factor in the success of a partnership. When a trusting relationship exists, both organizations openly discuss with each other what is and isn’t working. Staff foster interpersonal relationships with one another. Both partners are intentional about equitably contributing to the outcomes. Building trust is an art but it is also a science: there is a formula for trust and specific actions that can be taken to foster it. To weave trust into the fabric of the relationship, it is important that organizations establish partnership principles and align on the values and behaviors that will guide how they work together. Read more about how to create a strong culture through explicitly outlining values and behaviors.
2. Fundraise Jointly
Some organizations create new partnerships because they’ve already received funds to do so. For others seeking funding to support specific partnerships and initiatives, fundraising jointly can be challenging. It requires that partners establish clear expectations for each partner’s role, how much funding is needed, and what to do if they raise more or less than expected. It also requires partners to communicate about which funders they’re comfortable approaching and which ones are off limits.
3. Clarify Staffing
Successful partnership staffing ultimately comes down to clarity and simplicity. Don’t overcomplicate the staffing structure by involving people who don’t have a clear role or purpose. To clarify responsibilities, consider using the MOCHA model. At the beginning of the partnership, have an honest conversation about the time and skills needed, and then commit to dedicating what is necessary. Staffing challenges will inevitably arise no matter how well-planned the staffing structures. Create space to evaluate what is working and not working, and adjust accordingly.
4. Ensure Good Governance
Establish clear and transparent processes to govern the overall partnership. You can do this by agreeing upon objectives, outputs and outcomes and communicating these within partner organizations and to external stakeholders. It also helps to proactively develop processes for resolving conflicts between partners and for making changes to, or dissolving, the partnership. Managing finances is another crucial component of governance. It is important that both organizations can understand and articulate how funds will be used to achieve the partnership goals. Create accounting, budgeting and reporting mechanisms and, to ensure accountability, make them subject to external review.
5. Create Communications Processes
Get clear on how to communicate the purpose of the partnership. Each organization generally has four sets of stakeholders: their employees, their board, their partner organization and external parties. To start, create a comprehensive communications strategy to share information with your employees, your board and your partner organization. Create messaging that is easy to understand. This will then help in developing public-facing messaging that clearly and succinctly communicates the value of the partnership—messaging that will help garner buy-in and support from external stakeholders. Before releasing any public messaging, determine a process for how partners will approve and publish external messages.
6. Learn and Evaluate
In contrast to creating a measurement and evaluation strategy for a project, doing so for a partnership is unique because there generally are at least three distinct sets of objectives: those of Partner A, those of Partner B and those of the partnership. A first step is to create a theory of change for the partnership. Creating a theory of change at the beginning enables the organizations to establish a shared understanding of partnership objectives. The next step is to create an evaluation framework. The framework enables partners to identify metrics for Partner A’s objectives, Partner B’s objectives and the partnership objectives. Most importantly, approach the evaluation with a spirit of learning, not just one of accountability. Evaluations are ripe with opportunities to see what is working and what is not, and shift course.
Creating strong partnerships is hard, particularly if time is limited and partnership requests are abundant. Yet if we hope to change systems and make the transformational change we seek, we need partners. These steps may not make sense for all organizations but can serve as guideposts in many partnership situations. Ultimately, forging a strong partnership boils down to intentionality. From building interpersonal relationships to outlining budgets, what matters most is that partners are deliberate and thoughtful in the decisions they make and how they work together.
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