Are You Ready to Partner? Three Questions to Ask
September 24, 2013
Too few nonprofit partnerships thrive. Many sputter, limp along, and ultimately fail. Minor setbacks along the way are, of course, expected and an important part of learning, but ultimate failure itself is certainly not the goal of starting a partnership. The difficulties of partnering can be significantly reduced if you ask three important questions about your organization’s readiness before entering a partnership.
1. How clear are your mission and core strategies?
To be a good partner, an organization needs a strong sense of identity and clarity about what is important. This clarity allows you to present your needs and boundaries clearly. Leaders of organizations with pre-existing internal confusion will be reactive and unclear about their needs and goals, thus creating tension and barriers in the external partnership. If necessary, postpone joining a partnership until this fundamental work is complete.
2. Are you ready to work hard on the relationship?
Strong relationships are the basis of a solid foundation for partnerships between two or more organizations. We often underestimate the effort and time it takes to build the trust and understanding needed for each partnering organization to feel secure. Relationships between whole organizations, not just two people, are essential. This means including multiple members of the leadership team, general staff, board and volunteers in the partnership. The effort will pay off, but you have to put in the investments of time and patience.
3. Are you ready to learn?
Organizations should always be willing to self-evaluate and make changes. This means admitting mistakes and identifying underperforming areas, which is hard to do in front of others, especially outsiders whom you are just getting to know. Partnering exposes the internal workings of your organization. Others will get to see beyond the polished external face. Be honest about the culture and capacity for learning that your organization possesses. Can you share your mistakes with others? Can you engage in conversations in which others see shortcomings without being overly reactive? Openness to feedback and change is essential for a partnership to work well.
Partnerships are challenging, no one can change that. But organizations that show a readiness to face the challenges can join with other organizations to realize much needed cost savings or to develop more comprehensive approaches to providing public benefit.
Jumping into a partnership before you are ready might risk damaging your brand and external relationships while creating frustration for everyone involved in the partnership. Nonprofit leaders should ask these three questions in order prepare for the challenges ahead. Remember: Have a clear mission, work hard on the relationship, and be ready to learn. Then you will be prepared for the challenges, and realize your goals!