Strategic Partnership Essentials

Saturday, March 1, 2008 (All day)

Strong partnerships with other organizations extend the service, advocacy, innovation and learning capabilities of all nonprofit groups. Strategic partnerships, meant to endure for a considerable length of time, exert special demands that groups must anticipate and weigh carefully. I asked a small group of Community Partners Project Leaders to put their heads together during one of our periodic lunch conversations to discuss the ideal features groups need to contemplate when negotiating such an arrangement with another organization. After giving them a case in point to stimulate thinking – Community Partners’ current leadership and community development strategic partnership with Coro Southern California – the group helped develop a starter list of strategic partnership “essentials.” The conversation identified the following “essential features” worthy of attention:

  • Significant and clear value of the partnership to each partner’s organizational mission, particularly in ways that create complementary, not competitive dynamics.
  • Direct, measurable value added to each partner’s program or service practice that produces tangible, lasting benefits to each partner’s constituents.
  • Long-term residual social capital accruing to each partner’s staff, volunteers, leaders and overall organizational culture.
  • Concrete, stated relational and results expectations between partners.
  • Strategy and relationships “champions” who remain attentive to sustaining the partnership at the highest level of each organization.
  • Sufficient infrastructure in place (e.g., systems, staff, procedures, time, resources, communication modes) to support both sides of the partnership.
  • Mechanisms and “metrics” (some of which might be “hard” and others “soft”) that everyone agrees will help track and assess the partnership’s progress.
  • Prospects for recognizing, evaluating and responding to new opportunities that arise from the partnership.
  • Greater chances of enhanced visibility among key publics for each partner that further the quality and scale of what each brings to the community.
  • The prospect – generally a long-term one – of some measurable monetary, material, or other enhanced resource benefit for each partner.
  • Clarity about any financial implications of the partnership, particularly those likely to cause misunderstandings unless they are clear from the outset (e.g., approaching a funder separately to invest in some aspect of the partnership).
  • “Mutual mission mindfulness” so that everyone is aware if the partnership significantly distracts from, or positively alters, one or both partners’ mission focus.
  • Specific, written partnership terms and time specificity memorialized in an agreement.

One important realization that surfaced during the discussion was the degree to which many strategic partnerships rely on implicit agreements (“hey, let’s work together because it’s just a damn good idea!”) rather than explicit agreements (“hey, let’s fully explore and write down what we’re committing to work toward!”). Feel free to suggest other essentials and share them with me at so other Project Leaders and their teams can benefit.

(With a special nod of thanks to Project Leaders and Community Partners staff David G. Brown, Alison DeLucca, Bruce Dobbs, Judy Harper, Lyndee Knox, Hannah MacLaren, and Thuan Nguyen.)