Forming Partnerships

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As opportunities arise, organizations need practical advice on whether or not to form strategic partnerships, and, if so, where to begin the partnership development process. When considering a potential partnership, you may have questions such as: What benefits can a partnership provide? What organizations should we consider partnering with? How do we get a partnership process underway? The first step in developing a partnership is to define the need for a partnership. The second step is to start the process. The third step is to set up and maintain the partnership. Remember—a partnership should not be the end in itself, but, instead, a means to an end. Therefore, establishing a partnership may not always be the appropriate decision for meeting your goals.

The first step in partnership formation is to define the need for a partnership.

The goal in partnerships is to achieve more than individual organizations can achieve on their own. In other words, the whole of the partnership is greater than the sum of the individual parts.
Identifying self-interest is a critical part of this first step.  In defining the need for a partnership, you should think not only about what the partnership can accomplish as a whole, but also about the concrete benefits to your organization in particular. Each potential partner should answer the following questions and discuss their answers together:

  • What are our short-term interests? What does our organization need to accomplish or gain in the next 12 months to stay engaged in the partnership?
  • What are our long-term interests? What does our organization need to accomplish or gain in the next 18-36 months to stay engaged in the partnership?

Possible answers might include additional organizational members or volunteers; enhanced products or services; greater community credibility or support; and improved access to businesses, agencies, or foundations.

The second step in partnership formation is to start the process.

Partnerships have to be developed and nurtured in ways that respect and recognize all individuals. Building relationships is not just the responsibility of organizational leaders, but of everyone working in the partnership. It’s also important at the initial stages to agree on a set of ground rules for the partnership. This may seem obvious, but very few groups perform this fundamental requirement necessary for valuing and respecting the individual partners.

The stages of developing a partnership can be compared to the stages of team development—forming, storming, norming, and performing. Forming involves bringing people together to start the partnership-building process. It’s important that all members help determine the partnership goals, structure, and processes from the onset. In the next stage, after the group has met several times, people start to question the purpose and direction of the partnership (e.g., “Why am I here?”, “What’s my role?”, “Do we have the right priorities?”). It’s important to work through this storming stage so the group can be open and honest about their perceptions. Norming is the stage in which the partners begin to develop protocols and reach shared agreements. Performing is when the partners are working together smoothly and accomplishing their objectives.

The third step in partnership formation is setting up and maintaining the partnership.

There can often be ambiguity or conflict regarding the division of responsibility between the partnership and individual partners. For instance, it’s often difficult to clearly distinguish between strategic and operational (day-to-day) decision-making. Partners may be reluctant to delegate authority to the partnership. Therefore, the partnership can establish a clearly written legal constitution or contract (sometimes called a “terms of reference”). This document sets out the key objectives, procedures, structure, and outcomes of the partnership. It’s also essential that this document reflect the business plan or strategy that forms the basis of the partnership’s work.

The document gives members an overview of how agreed-upon action will be taken and develops a sense of shared responsibility for the partnership’s achievements and failures. It also gives the partnership some structure and boundaries to work within, while allowing flexibility for change and growth. During the setup stage, partners can also develop a specific work plan and agree on their performance management processes so staff members know what they’re meant to accomplish and how they’re doing.

These checklists will help you launch and set up a partnership.

Click the Evaluating Partnerships, Starting the Process, and Setting Up Checklists

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