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The Power of Partnering

No matter how much you can do on your own, there’s even more on the horizon when you can align yourself with a like-minded organization and embark on a journey of mutual support and development.

If you’re the owner and operator of a nonprofit, you’re certainly fully aware of the myriad of challenges that come with pursuing that particular venture. Although some are similar to those experienced in the realm of the small business, the nonprofit faces uniquely complex hurdles. Outside perception can more often than not be misperception, as it can be virtually impossible for those not in the nonprofit world to have a true comprehension of the sometimes lonely battle these organizations fight in pursuit of fulfilling their mission.

Have you had to contend with that sense of being up against overwhelming odds as you simply try to keep your nonprofit on course? Regardless of what your organization is about or which client base you’re serving, you certainly launched your venture with a passionate and deeply-held belief in the necessity of providing assistance for a specific demographic. Undertaking such a formidable pursuit absolutely rests on a platform of commitment to your mission, but the harsh realities of translating that goal into the real world can overshadow even the greatest enthusiasm and purpose.

According to a 2018 article from the website of insurance firm Grant, Hinkle, & Jacobs, the four primary challenges faced by nonprofits are insufficient funding, lack of strategic planning, minimal engagement, and shortage of key staff. Although each of the four presents its own unique complexities, perhaps it’s strategic planning that most overwhelms charitable organizations. Failure to adequately develop and implement strategy does a tremendous disservice to the mission and vision of the nonprofit, but the good news is that properly embracing strategic planning – and the many nuanced facets of it – can open the door for finding solutions to the other challenges of funding, engagement, and staffing.

Strategic planning is a broad term that encompasses the full spectrum of steps from properly solidifying the organization’s mission to laying out achievable benchmarks for growth and development. Somewhere in that array of components is a critical but sometimes overlooked or downplayed concept which can actually provide a nonprofit with an added advantage. The idea of strategic partnerships – of fostering mutually-beneficial relationships with other organizations in the same sphere of service – opens up doors of possibility that never would exist for nonprofits staunchly trying to go it on their own.

If you’ve found your own nonprofit to be struggling more than flourishing, have you ever considered what could be gained by seeking collaboration with others? Certainly, the grant and donation-funded world of the nonprofit is a highly competitive one, and there can be the obvious temptation to view other organizations as nothing more than potentially dangerous competitors. But looking beyond that perception can yield amazing possibilities by opening doors you may not even know existed. Instead of viewing other organizations as hindrances to your success, what if you were to discover that cultivating connection with them actually enabled you to do more than you are able to right now?

If you’re at a place of opening up your mind to the potential of strategic partnerships, where do you even start? It might seem obvious to focus on those organizations which serve a client demographic similar to yours, but don’t make this search so exclusive as to rule out entities which provide different but complimentary services, things which don’t replicate your own service model but which would be valuable and enriching extensions of what your own organization is doing. This can create a tag-team kind of collaboration: one nonprofit addresses a certain aspect of the client’s need and another continues the interaction by providing a service outside of the skillset or purview of the first organization.

Irrespective of the level of collaboration or the anticipated duration of the partnership, it’s critically important for both of the partnering organizations to enter the relationship with clear-cut goals and a formalized structure to operate within. A key tool to facilitate this setting of expectations is what’s known as a memorandum of understanding, or MOU. Prior to officially launching any intra-organizational interaction, having at least this degree of written agreement helps to protect both of the nonprofits. Further legal contracts or other binding documentation might follow later, but having a clear and concise MOU in place is of paramount importance.

At least at the outset, there’s great prudence and benefit to conducting meetings between the respective senior leadership of each organization so that any matters discussed can be done so in an executive context. Whether seeking guidance for an outstanding issue or simply for obtaining official approval, matters can then be taken to each organization’s Board of Directors, steering committee, or other oversight entity. Once the initial elements of establishing the partnership have been put into place, it’s crucial that specific contact persons and designees be established in both camps to ensure that day-to-day operational items are addressed in a timely manner by people who are actually directly involved with the daily processes.

One of the greatest byproducts of a strategic partnership is the increased visibility it can bring to both of the participating organizations. The inevitable outcome is one of cross-pollination – the sphere of influence enjoyed by both of the nonprofits will now experience overlap. People who would have never given a passing glance to the one nonprofit may now have a logical, organic introduction to it through seeking the services of the other. If a client has a trusted relationship with an organization which enjoys a credibility in the community and local nonprofit sphere, the partnering nonprofit can benefit from that status. Because the client already appreciates the validity of the services they receive, a suggested connection to a partnering nonprofit is more apt to be greeted with an open-mindedness and sense of trust.

The net result of this is a kind of de facto marketing. Each organization is poised to enjoy increased community visibility, and when people hear about one of the organizations, the other will come to mind because of the partnership. The fact that the two ventures are collaborating to bring a more diversified and complete level of service to the client can definitely be viewed as “value added”. By gleaning the combined expertise of two organizations, those who patronize either nonprofit will undoubtedly feel that they’re receiving more benefit than they otherwise would have in interacting with only one.

Another exciting prospect involves the possibility of pursuing joint grant opportunities. Although this could involve different approaches, one of the most common is to see the organizations fashion collaborative programs in which each plays a clearly defined role. This can also result in co-branding of the program, which again increases the credibility of both organizations. If the one nonprofit is larger or enjoys better financial endowment, the smaller organization can benefit from the clout of the partner nonprofit. The larger entity can likewise find benefit if the smaller partnering entity can provide services that would normally not be considered within the operational framework of the larger one.

Establishing, defining, and maintaining a unique, relevant identity for your nonprofit is critical above all else, but developing strategic partnership is a close second. No matter how much you can do on your own, there’s even more on the horizon when you can align yourself with a like-minded organization and embark on a journey of mutual support and development.


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