The Art of Partnering Now

I recently discussed what's necessary for a productive – and happy – partnership (see: Developing and Nurturing Partnerships).  I’m sure it came as no surprise that there is significant overlap, in terms of elements (think: Honesty) and approach (think: Communication) between relationships in life and in work.  The same holds true for institutional partnerships, especially those involving financial exchanges.

As we transition from conventional models of corporate underwriting and sponsorship to newer forms of engagement, it is becoming more and more important to understand how to effectively do the partnership dance. This new choreography is not superficial and requires real shifts in ideology and execution. 



“Many traditional nonprofits form short-term partnerships with superficially similar organizations to execute a single program, exchange a few resources, or attract funding. In contrast, networked nonprofits forge long-term partnerships with trusted peers to tackle their missions on multiple fronts."

Jane Wei-Skillern & Sonia Marciano, "The Networked Nonprofit", Stanford Social Innovation Review

Change is Good

The move away from outdated partnership archetypes is motivated by a recognition that neither check-writing nor thinly veiled marketing plays are sufficient methods to provide sustainable solutions and affect real change.  Both of these approaches lacked an appreciation for the opportunity to tap into the deeper knowledge, a myriad of resources, and potential solutions.  The challenges of our time are too complex not to harness every asset available – talent, technology, networks, money, influence, audience, and perspective – to address them.  No one sector or institution possesses each or all of these elements, but everyone has a stake in our collective success. For example, we can’t address the crisis of the opioid epidemic by only focusing on, say, treatment options. We also have to look at education, criminal justice, housing, labor, and a host of related issues where public and private institutions play essential roles.

Partnerships may indeed include a financial transaction, but they can and should be as much about “values” as they are about “value.”  No sector has the monopoly on purpose and passion (sorry non-profits, you no longer have the sole claim to this realm). Gone are the days when non-profits were only about purpose, and companies were only about profit. The former need to think strategically about revenue models, and the latter is being asked to offer more meaning to employees and customers alike. Recognizing that every party to a partnership needs to have their value affirmed is critical.  In order to ensure that this happens, you have to be willing to listen, to compromise and to allow for the possibility of new ways of doing business. 

When the pieces just don’t fit


“Just because collaboration is needed doesn’t mean it is possible.”

Chris Thompson, Author, Collaboration: The Handbook

You must also know when to walk away.  Signals that a partnership is mismatched?  When an organization says yes to the money, but is only paying lip service to incorporating ideas; resists or resents including people such as board seats or volunteers; or doesn’t trust their partner’s motives.  Alternatively, if you are a funder, and seek to bring “real world” expertise to an organization alongside financial assets (My personal pet peeve: what is not real about running a social purpose organization?!), this may indicate a lack of respect and understanding for the organization you’ve chosen as a partner.  The inability to recognize the value in strategic or operational differences injects a toxic element into any partnership.  Finally, if you can’t be honest about your real priorities and concerns the venture is not headed for success.


A number of years ago, I worked with a corporate foundation that supported an array of youth development programs globally. They had innovative approaches to communications, understood the incredible value of storytelling (before the now in-vogue “narrative” was on everyone’s tongues) and allocated serious money to its grants, which allowed recipient organizations to invest in capacity and share information to make meaningful, field-building contributions. The foundation invested money, the talent of its staff, and serious brand credibility.  However, this largesse came with a pretty hefty set of requirements, such as placing ads in the national press, hosting large events and redesigning websites, annual reports, and other public-facing platforms. For some grantees, these were a fair price to pay and represented an equitable value exchange. For others, they were too onerous and unsustainable. 

The societal challenges we face today require that we be willing to entertain uncomfortable truths and innovate boldly to move forward. Partnering with those who offer a different perspective can be a powerful tool, and is arguably the best type of strategic alliance in our efforts to create a better world. This presents opportunities for creativity and growth. Even as new structures for collaboration emerge, they still need to be grounded in some very old-fashioned virtues – honesty, openness, and respect – if we hope to harness their full value and achieve impactful results.