Want an Effective Partnership? Ask These 4 Key Questions First!

September 25, 2018

If the word “partnership” makes you shudder, you are in good company.

It can be hard enough to work with your teammates, much less try to work with anyone else outside of your organization. Plus, with limited resources like time and money, your organization may be pitted against others to compete for the same pools of talent and funding. This very setup makes it tough for organizations to see each other as allies instead of the competition, even when their missions go hand in hand!

Yet we also know the impact of any one organization is maximized when working with other like-minded groups. Organizations have much to gain if they see each other as valuable allies, rather than competitors. In our experience, when done well, partnerships have proven to be truly transformative.

ICL recently facilitated a workshop for staff and volunteers from organizations large and small that are involved in a wide range of partnerships. The groups had a dizzying array of needs and made preparing for the session a real challenge….as challenging as, well, partnerships! Groups in the room were partnering with other nonprofits, with federal and state agencies, and with local businesses. The complexity of those relationships and how to adequately assess their value against the time and effort put into them was an important part of their discussion. And, establishing partnership increases in difficulty when faced with a range of internal and external issues.

To help your partnership be effective and impactful from the start, ask yourself these four key questions:

1) Wait, why are you partnering again?

There is something to give and something to get in all partnerships. Establishing a shared vision for the partnership will help clarify the value each group brings to each partnership and what each group seeks out of that partnership. It’s also important to emphasize that simply urging others to “join us” is not a path to success. In order to achieve more authentic, high-impact partnerships, it is important that we show up where our allies and community members already are.

2) Is everyone – even in your own organization – “on the same page?”

In our case, the groups we worked with wrestled with the dynamic of partnerships between organization as well as among each other. Sometimes it felt a little messy, but often that is how developing partnerships feels. Personal dynamics show up in all spaces, and it’s best to do the necessary pre-work to get aligned on your team before the larger meeting.

3) Are the right people in the room?

Each person who represents an organization can use their own capacities as a listener, visionary, goal-setter, and bridge-builder to strengthen relationships and build the trust that is needed for success over time. Knowing the purpose of the partnership will help clarify who needs to be in the room. Is your partnership about assessing impact, but the people who are most impacted aren’t present? Is your partnership about influencing decisions, but no decisionmakers are there?

4) Can you give this partnership what it needs, and can it give you a boost, too?

Do you have enough time and attention to really contribute to the partnership so it can contribute to your group’s success? Ultimately, sustaining a long-term partnership should help your organization grow stronger in its mission attainment, growth, credibility, and other key metrics. It’s important that you 1) be realistic about your capacity to meaningfully contribute to a partnership and 2) be honest about whether the partnership is fueling or depleting your work.

There are numerous ways organizations can partner, from information sharing and cooperation all the way to a formal partnership agreement that establishes a strong sense of “us” rather than of each organization. In the case of our workshop, its effectiveness was the result of the authentic partnering of everybody in the room. When you show up with clear intentions and openness to change, significant and impactful partnerships are possible.

P.S. Want to assess your partnership capacity?

Download ICL’s partnership self-assessment! Use it to identify where to focus your efforts, educate others on your team about how to maximize partnerships, or use it with your partners to create a shared understanding of your partnership.

And if you need assistance related to a partnership or collaboration – including meeting design and facilitation – let me know at peter (at) icl (dot) org!