Nonprofits can join forces for good


May 09, 1994|By LESTER A. PICKER

As I mentioned in last week's column, the benefits of creating partnerships with other nonprofit organizations are many. Aside from advancing your mission, partnerships can significantly boost your marketing objectives.

Typically, a nonprofit recognizes the benefits but lacks the expertise to create enduring, mutually beneficial relationships.

Successful partnerships between nonprofits, in my experience, begin with a shared perception of a problem. In other words, the partnership is highly targeted from the get-go. The problem might be client-specific, such as improving school grades of at-risk youth, or more generic, like joint fund-raising for a common cause.

Once a problem has been identified in common, each partner should be absolutely sure that addressing the problem, and working in concert, advances both their organizational missions

and visions. There's no point in a joint operating agreement that distracts either partner from its main mission. Unless there is a clear win for everyone, the partnership will undoubtedly fail.

Next, working together, the potential partners need to design effective approaches to the common problem. In the real world, this might play out by capitalizing on the program strengths of one partner and the financial strengths of another. Or, a two-way partnership may decide to invite in a third group to enhance program delivery.

Next, roles should be assigned to each partner that are unambiguous and measurable. In partnerships, it is always a good idea to initially assign roles based on pre-existing strengths. Once a comfortable working relationship and trust are developed, each side can then stretch itself to enhance agency skills. I remember once working with a community agency that wanted to start an academic mentoring program for youth. Rather than climbing the learning curve from the bottom, we brought in Big Brothers and Big Sisters to train staff and conduct background checks for potential mentors.

One of the strengths of partnerships is that a service "web" is created that ultimately benefits the clients. Together look for service coverage gaps, identify likely partners that can plug those gaps, and invite them into the partnership. One of the many benefits of partnerships is that, once up and running, they can bring in smaller players and upgrade their skills quite cost effectively. However, from the outset it should be clear to all partners who are the primary and secondary players and where the lines of responsibility and accountability are drawn.

One of the most critical aspects of any relationship is communication. Nonprofit partnerships suffer more from this than any other flaw. Great projects are planned, but there is no institutionalized mechanism for continuing communication. Suddenly, a minor problem arrives on the desks of the CEOs as letter bombs.

Operationally, institutional partnerships follow some basic rules for success. First, all primary players should be identified, approached and committed before any public announcement is made. It is also important to define end results.

Next, a common mission statement should be developed so that all parties, and their constituents, are clear about what they are doing. A publicity plan should be developed that enables outside interests to see that the agencies are cooperating. The publicity plan should make it clear who is the reporting party.

One final word. Partnerships invariably place together different organizational cultures. Players need to recognize that and come to the table ready to learn about and value those differences.

Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; (410) 392-3160.

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