How to decide if your NGO is ready for partnership

In her book, 'Expanding the Pie,' author Susan Rae Ross offers a framework for evaluating partnership opportunities. Photo: Courtesy of Kumarian Press.

Does it make sense to partner? That’s a question that professionals in business, government and nonprofits often find themselves asking in this new era of partnership. In her book, “Expanding the Pie:Fostering Effective Non-Profit and Corporate Partnerships,” consultant Susan Rae Ross presented the findings of 46 original case studies of cross-sectoral partnerships focused on social or environmental impact.  The excerpt below includes step one of her eight-step “Partnership Decision-Making Framework,” a tool to guide leaders through the partnership process.

Partnership decision-making framework 

Capitalizing on the best of the literature and interviews with over 100 NGO and business managers, I have developed an eight-step decision-making framework to guide managers in asking the right questions to effectively design, execute, and evaluate successful partnerships. Although this framework focuses on partnerships between NGOs and corporations, it can also be used with other types of partnerships.

Each of the eight steps in the framework provides key questions for consideration and tools to assist managers in making partnership decisions. Table 9.1 outlines the eight steps and the key task to be accomplished in each step.

This decision-making framework embraces a partnership lifecycle approach based on continuous value creation. This means that if the partnership is not providing value for all partners, then other mechanisms should be explored, because partnerships are not easy and they may not be the best solution for every problem. 

Step 1: Conduct an internal assessment

It is important for an organization to understand the rationale and value of a collaborative effort as well as its capacity to make the effort a success. A manager must consider four questions during this step, including:

1. Why do we want to partner?

2. What is the best partnership arrangement to achieve our objectives?

3. Do we have the capacity to start a new partnership?

4. What assets can we bring to the partnership?

Why partner?

Studies have found that 75% of NGO respondents have a written policy about whom they would work with, but only 32% share these policies with businesses. The case studies reviewed in previous chapters [of this book] demonstrated that many of the environmental and human rights NGOs had a specific corporate engagement strategy that governed their behavior and partnerships.

For example, several NGOs, such as EDF and Greenpeace, do not accept any corporate funding, whereas World Wildlife Fund will not accept any funding from companies remotely linked to any of their active campaigns. Other NGOs avoid working with specific industries because of their poor practices such as support of gambling, or their products such as weapons.

NGOs without a corporate engagement strategy are often at a disadvantage because they lack a framework to guide them in decision-making. Thus each case has to be evaluated separately. For philanthropic activities, it is easy to see how the funding will contribute to the NGO’s objectives. However, for joint programming or integrative partnership efforts that require more negotiation and a strategic fit with core competencies, the lack of a framework can greatly delay the process, frustrating potential corporate partners.

Without an overall guiding framework, it also means that an NGO may have a “hit or miss” approach, yielding mixed results from their partnerships. For example, an NGO corporate sponsorship officer said, “[W]e don’t have a written policy but life would be much easier if we did. The only unwritten rule we have is around not accepting sponsorship from oil and nuclear fuel companies.”

Several barriers seem to inhibit NGOs from making a commitment to how they will engage with corporations. First, it takes time for an organization to develop a strategy with widespread support. In addition, NGO staff may have differing views about working with certain industries or companies, which may take time to change.

Second, even when there is a framework, it may be difficult for financially strapped NGOs to say no to potential funding opportunities, even if they are less than ideal.

Third, as previously mentioned, units within an NGO may have different incentives for developing partnerships. For example, marketing departments may be rewarded by the amount of funds they raise, whereas technical units often focus on innovation. These differences can cause conflicts within an NGO and they can lead to delays and missed partnership opportunities.

What type of partnership is desired?

There are many ways that NGOs can partner with corporations, ranging from in-kind donations to joint ventures. Thus an NGO needs to determine how it wants to engage with a company to achieve its objectives. Identifying the type of partnership enables the NGO to conduct more targeted research on potential corporate partners. It also helps the NGO identify the skills and resources it will need to support the partnership.

For example, if an NGO would like to do a cause-related marketing campaign, then the point of contact within the company will probably be the marketing department rather than the foundation. In addition, the NGO should assess its own capacity to support a marketing campaign.

Partnerships are developed based on negotiation and compromise. The final partnership may be different from the NGO’s original thinking, based on discussions with the partner, but this planning phase is very important.

What is our internal capacity to implement the partnership?

Once partnership with a business has been deemed beneficial, an NGO needs to ensure that it can make the commitment in terms of funds, human resources, and organizational support required to make the partnership a success. The NGO may have to strengthen its capacity in key areas or develop new capacities to participate in some partnerships.

Most NGO and corporate managers grossly underestimated the time required to develop and implement partnerships. Many corporate managers felt frustrated because the process took much longer than they thought it should, based on their corporate experience.

The biggest challenge for NGOs is the staff time required to develop potential partnerships. Because the lead-time to agree on a partnership can be quite long, NGOs often have to tap staff, who may be paid by other projects, to develop the relationship until a partnership agreement is in place and funds are available to hire more staff.

For example, a partnership between Denny’s and Save the Children took eight months of discussions before an agreement was signed. Kurt Ackermann, chief marketing officer of the Boys and Girls Club, reported that the relationship between the Boys and Girls Club and Major League Baseball took four years to develop. He goes on to say, “[W]hen you do come up with a plan, patience will be rewarded with a stronger, longer-lasting relationship—because your partner helped create it.”

Interviews with NGO managers, particularly large NGOs, indicate that there can be a limited understanding within an NGO about the breadth and depth of the entire portfolio of the NGO’s partnerships. This is because different people and departments manage several projects, but only a few people have the overall view from an organizational perspective.

In my discussions with NGO managers, many reported that they have 10 to 15 strategic alliances. Most people agree that strategic alliances require a significant level of investment in time and resources, particularly by senior management, to be successful. However, many of these NGOs did not have any specific criteria that could classify a partnership as a “strategic alliance” as opposed to other types of partnerships.

Managers often do not understand that an important relationship does not automatically provide strategic value. To help managers classify and manage their partnerships, I developed the Partnership Portfolio Map presented in Table 9.3.

This tool provides a framework for organizations to map the status of all their current partnerships and objectively classify their partnerships against specific criteria to understand how they are currently managing their portfolio.

This process also allows the organization to (1) better understand how much personnel time is required to manage different types of partnerships, (2) identify best practices and lessons learned about managing partnerships, and (3) assess the value of its current partnership in terms of the organization’s growth potential. (Note that this process can be conducted for all partnerships or only for private-sector partners.)

When I have conducted this exercise with NGOs, using index cards for each partnership, most participants classified their partnerships in the far right-hand columns as “joint programming” or “integrative partnerships.”

As people discussed the partnerships and compared them with the criteria, the cards shifted to the left, and partnerships were reclassified as “transactional” or “resource exchange” partnerships. By the end, only a few partnerships remained as joint programming or integrative relationships and the majority were reclassified as resource exchanges or transactional relationships.

For example, one NGO had a subcontract with a trucking company to distribute food. Initially, this relationship was identified as a joint programming effort because the distribution system was vital to the project’s success. However, after much discussion, the staff admitted that the trucking company was not bringing any added value, such as new skills or ideas to the partnership, and there was no senior management involvement required. Thus the partnership was reclassified as a transactional relationship in which the NGO pays the trucking company to move food from the port to a clinic.

That is not to say that this is not an important relationship—it provided vital input for the project. However, it does not produce the same value as other types of partnerships such as a joint programming effort.

The Partnership Portfolio Map can change over time as the partnerships themselves change. For example, the early years of the City Year and Timberland partnership, during which Timberland donated  boots to the City Year volunteers, would have been classified as a resource exchange. Today, City Year is located in Timberland’s headquarters and they have many joint initiatives, so the relationship is classified as an integrative partnership.

It is very powerful for an NGO to know its partnership capacity, because this enables it to make decisions. It may decide that newer opportunities provide more value than an existing partnership, so it may need to develop exit strategies or restructure the way it manages these relationships.

Or the NGO may decide that additional skills and resources are needed to take on new partnerships. Whatever decision is reached, this information allows an NGO to develop strategies to effectively manage its partnership portfolio and ensure that it has adequate organizational capacity to implement successful partnerships.

 Excerpted from Susan Rae Ross’s Expanding the Pie: Fostering Effective Non-profit and Corporate Partnerships. Copyright © 2012 by Susan Rae Ross. Used with permission of the publisher, Kumarian Press, a division of Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. 

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