October 13, 2020

Getting partnership ready

Five steps to help ensure your collaboration isn’t in vain.


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4 min read

Today, in the face of COVID-19 and the triple crisis (health, economic, and social) it has confronted India with, we’ve seen multiple nonprofits come together in an attempt to combine their efforts and safeguard their communities.

Needless to say, the benefits of collaboration are universally known: Knowledge sharing, an increase in efficiency, and the ability to address multiple levers for systemic change. However, more often than not, the barriers to operationalising a successful partnership between two or more organisations prevent it’s widespread adoption. Given this, what can nonprofits do to ensure that they are setting up their collaboration to be a success?

From building internal capacity, to aligning organisational strategy, and initiating a new partnership—this article outlines five steps nonprofits looking to collaborate can take today.

1. Preparing leaders for partnerships

a) Recognise the benefits of peer collaboration: Analysing organisations working in the same domain keeps nonprofit leaders aware of the strengths they and their peers contribute to solving social issues. With this in mind nonprofit leaders should identify how potential partnerships will contribute to their organisation’s overall mission. Assessing alignment of values, commonalities and differences in programmes and partners, can reduce effort and duplication as well as help change a competitive mindset to a collaborative one.

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b) Create a culture of collaboration: Focusing on ‘soft’ skills involves developing the ability to listen and respond empathetically. This helps create an environment in which team members feel confident to share their views. Consulting with department heads ensures that the opinions of team members are heard and that the ideology of collaboration and common outcomes are communicated to all levels of an organisation.

c) Celebrate team effort: Leaders who celebrate joint effort and contributions recognise the role different members have in achieving a shared goal. Adopting this approach sets a precedent and disrupts ‘silo’ mentality.

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Picture courtesy: Rawpixel

2. Building internal capacity for partnerships

a) Focus on the big picture: When teams understand where and how the potential partner or their organisation contributes to the larger ecosystem, they are more open to partnering with different organisations. Just as leadership teams are required to identify the strengths of their organisations, it is equally important for teams to recognise the value that partners add to their work.

b) Include collaborative skills in team reviews: When reviewing success, incorporating self-reflections focused on the process of dialogue and team work helps team members consider their role, contribution, and how collaboration could be improved to increase the level of success in the future.

c) Allow for flexibility and failure: Providing platforms for knowledge sharing across teams, allowing some percentage of staff’s time to contribute to verticals or teams other than their own based on their interest, and celebrating failures as lessons learnt are strategies to stimulate a collaborative mindset across an organisation.

d) Take time to prepare: It is critical for the organisation to focus on the processes involved in collaboration (be it internal or external) – how common goals are identified, what consistent communication looks like, why resource sharing, board alignment, leadership buy-in and operational capacity are important, and so on.

3. Aligning organisational strategy

a) Incorporate a ‘partnership lens’ in strategy: Assess the feasibility of partnerships to sustain, strengthen, or scale nonprofit programmes and/or organisations. When reviewing organisational strategies, nonprofits can introspect to consider how their mission can be supported better by a collaborative effort, and how that plays into their short-term or long-term plan.

b) Focus on partnership metrics: It is important to place metrics of collaborative success as a key element of organisational goals. Analysing the success of identifying partners, forming partnerships, and sustaining those partnerships, tracks an organisation’s partnership journey from the beginning and makes space for adjustments along with the way.

4. Developing a partnership strategy

Establishing the purpose is the first step to take on the partnership journey. To make this happen nonprofits should consider:

  • Uniqueness of the existing programme supported by demonstrated evidence of success
  • Compliance checks—ensuring they are legally sound to partner
  • Financial stability to ensure they have adequate financial resources to allocate to the operations and delivery of a partnership associated programme
  • A customised partnership model to achieve goals that are aligned to the organisational strategy
  • The right type of partners for the partnership

5. Initiating a collaboration

While the above factors underline the partnership readiness journey, entering into a partnership requires key decisions and commitments. The following factors should be in place before any two or more organisations engage in a partnership:

a) Goals: Each partner should have agreement on the common goals to be achieved. Defining success criteria both for the implementation of the initiative, and the functioning of the collaborative, prepares partners to monitor progress effectively.

b) Roles: Clearly defining each partner’s role based on strengths communicates their value to the partnership. Documenting the division of responsibilities presents the opportunity for each party to equally contribute to the collaboration.

c) Talent: Partnerships require dedicated personnel to contribute to discussions on behalf of their organisation. Initially, senior leadership tend to take on this role and delegate to colleagues once key decision-making has taken place.

d) Model: Nonprofits wanting to scale their existing programme require a replicable model with the ability to build capacity across partners. Partners seeking to integrate other programmes within their initiative, identify how it will be sustained in order to positively impact the communities they work in. The partnership model should be clearly articulated between parties.

e) Review: Monitoring and evaluation systems provide critical data to inform the direction of collaborative action and uphold accountability. Mid-way reviews focus on aspects such as operational effectiveness, progress in achieving defined goals, and the functioning of the partners as a collective. Ensuring data transparency across partners enables each one to reflect on their own contributions to achieving common, as well as, organisational goals.

Know more

  • This article is based on a paper which analyses partnership in crisis, drawing insights for the future of collaborative action from 13 social sector leaders. 
  • Watch this webinar series focused on cross-sector collaboration.

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Sheena Gandhi

Sheena Gandhi is co-founder of Sahayog Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on collaboration and collective impact. She is a strong advocate of partnerships, and Sahayog’s priority is to facilitate collaborative efforts so that various actors can work in unison to achieve common goals and generate a ‘multiplier effect’ for successful programmes. The organisation works with people, partners, and creates platforms to aggregate learning and increase accountability, improving organisational and programmatic effectiveness for scalable and sustainable development.