One of the things I love about working in nonprofits is the sense of camaraderie in the field. Regardless of each organization’s area of focus, we are all trying to do good work and contribute to the common good in our own ways. So it’s an even greater pleasure when we realize that we can work together on a project.
Partnerships are a frequent occurrence in the nonprofit world and are often encouraged by funders. For instance, an art project for children and an after-school program would work together beautifully. The art project doesn’t have to figure out where to hold classes or how to find interested kids, and the after-school program gains an enriching activity led by qualified staff. The benefits are obvious: more and better work for the same or lower cost.
While a partnership will only last for a limited time on a discrete project, the positive effects of a good partnership can last for much longer—and can be extremely advantageous. Below are four ways to ensure that your partnership improves your organization for the long term.
1. Increase Your Funding
In my experience, the organization with the larger finance and development departments is the one that takes care of the project funding and distribution of money. However, if you represent the smaller organization, don’t be too quick to abdicate those responsibilities—which can actually be opportunities to learn, gain experience, and expand your network—entirely.
For example, if your partner organization has a lot of clout with big foundations, make sure that you are involved in all meetings and proposals to ensure that you are able to make connections that could lead to independent grants down the line.
Also, think about how the partner project will look to funders in the future. Even if they aren’t able to fund this particular partnership, how is the project adding to your credibility? How can the project allow you to pitch your work in a different way or at a different level?
For instance, a grassroots community organization can get a huge boost in prestige by working with a university research department that proves that its approach is effective in reducing crime or increasing school attendance. Brainstorm these questions with your development staff as you are considering new partnership opportunities to see how these alliances could benefit you even more in the future.
2. Build Your Capacity
A partnership isn’t about sharing work—it’s about sharing resources. When you initially sign up for a partnership, you might focus on the project-specific resources you will share, such as research, access to a new population, or communications skills, but you can actually learn much more. Partnerships put you in close contact with another organization very similar to yours, giving you the opportunity to observe how it structures its departments, treats its staff, and conducts fundraising.
Moreover, thanks to the extra resources you have because of that partnership , you should have extra time in your day to actually implement any changes you want to make.
3. Offer Your Staff New Opportunities
Because of consistent under-staffing in nonprofits, especially in administrative roles, junior staff can often be overburdened with grunt work rather than opportunities to work their way up the ladder at your organization.
So, as you start to sketch out your partnership, think of ways you can use that alliance to help less experienced employees lead and learn. Involve them in conference calls and meetings, and show your partners how much you respect your colleagues by listening to them and seriously considering their suggestions. Not only will that take some of the day-to-day pressure from your established leadership team, your junior staff will appreciate the trust you place in them and be more motivated in their other work.
4. Carve Out Your Identity
If you have been struggling with branding and identity, a partnership can be a good way to differentiate yourself within the field. For instance, maybe you’re part of an elder care facility partnering with a nutritional research firm. Your partner provides rigorous data analysis and recommendations that allow service providers to improve health outcomes for their clients—and so, because of that partnership, you might find that rather than being “just another” nursing home, you can position yourself as an expert in the overlapping issues of diet, health, and age, and offer comprehensive services to ensure active later years.
Nonprofits can get so busy with the problems right in front of us that we forget to see the long-term potential benefits. Don’t let that happen with your partnerships! By investing your time in building good relationships with your partners now, you can make them pay off for years to come.