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Tips for a Successful Strategic Partnership

Strategic partnerships offer a path forward for nonprofits with aligned goals and missions to combine resources and ideas to more effectively work toward large-scale solutions to complex problems. But before the final handshakes take place, smart negotiations are necessary to ensure the success of the collaboration. Consultant Erik Speakman offers practical tips to ensure a useful and seamless integration of staff, funding and outcomes.

By now, everyone in the nonprofit community has either participated in, been encouraged to participate in, or have learned in some way about strategic partnerships. If you have not participated in a strategic partnership up to this point, there are a myriad of reasons to consider it. Sought-after outcomes may be more attainable with an organizational partnership. Sometimes, your clients and your community think of your potential partners as already being part of your organization. Perhaps your organization, for whatever reason, simply cannot sustain and renew itself. Eventually, I think funders will require nonprofits to either show how they plan to remain sustainable and unique from similar organizations or expect them to partner to meet shared goals.  

One of the biggest mistakes which leads to a lot of wasted time and resources is beginning the partnership process without clarity among the stakeholders on the partnership’s purpose and desired outcomes. Leadership from each involved organization should assess their organization’s strengths and weaknesses and agree on the purpose of a partnership. Then, the partner organizations need to collectively agree on their purpose and desired outcomes. This clarity of purpose and agreement on the key issues to negotiate will enhance the planning process and, ultimately, its implementation.  

Next, create a partnership task force comprised of an equal number of board members and staff leadership from each organization to negotiate key issues and draft a long-term partnership plan and agreement. Each partnership is unique, but all require consideration of some key issues. The task force should be prepared to answer questions such as:

  • Who will be the Executive Director?
  • Who will run the partnership?
  • What board members will be on the partnering board?
  • How will programs from each organization continue?
  • What will be the name of the partnership?

In the search for answers to these defining questions, it is important to provide opportunities for key stakeholders—especially staff and funders – to provide feedback on these issues and the overall draft plan. As you negotiate, also conduct appropriate due diligence in examining key information and records of you partners, with special attention to financial statements, contracts, by-laws, employee compensation, etc. Remember, honesty is key in developing a partnership just like in any important relationship. It is highly advisable to use a third-party facilitator, at least at the beginning of the negotiations, to keep the process moving forward effectively. After effective negotiations, bring in the attorneys to take care of the legal issues and agreements. Then, have the boards ratify and approve the partnership. 

Once the partnership’s long-term plan and strategy is completed, you should develop initial priority goals and plans of action for implementing the plan and integrating all partners. Integration efforts must consider programs, people, funds, systems and cultures. For implementation to be successful, assign a leader to be responsible, create joint staff and board teams to take ownership, periodically stop and evaluate progress, and then remember to communicate, communicate, communicate.

Erik Speakman is a GCN Affiliate Consultant and the Founder of Speakman Management Consulting.

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