20 ways to know if partnering is paying off

Nonprofit organizations and foundations love to talk about “partnering”, “co-creating”, leverage”, and “synergy” – but do these hook-ups really yield as much value for the effort involved? Or is it just beneficial to be seen collaborating?

I searched for reports on what value non-profit professionals typically get out of collaborations, but sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much research on this. One exception is Keystone’s own Partnership Survey. We measure this along dimensions of the quality of relationship, including peoples’ feeling of voice or agency in the partnership, how this partnership enables them to be connected to a larger network, and the value of other “non-financial support” and advice. We find that on a scale of -100 to +100, most aspects of a partnership score in the +05 to +10 range across 66 organizations. That means that most of the time, people are getting value from collaboration, but barely.

Last week we led a “DataStorm” at FeedbackLabs – a round table discussion with a dozen like-minded organizations – on this topic. In contrast to their LabStorm feedback and brainstorming series, DataStorms are meant to feature more tech talk about digital craft, interoperability (how we actually share and use each others information), and informal peer review towards fostering greater technical collaboration among non-profits. Keystone and Rootchange presented lessons and challenges combining our back-end systems together within the Feedback Commons. This should provide both organizations with the ability to do community network mapping and community relationship tracking within a common system.

Out of that discussion came this list of 20 questions to ask yourself when evaluating the likely return for jumping into a partnership with another organization:

  1. Is the other organization a good fit? Ask yourself: Does their mission align and complement your own?
  2. Do they provide technical expertise or access to networks that you lack?
  3. Are your internal cultures similar enough that people generally and mutually trust each other?
  4. Do you have a well-defined first project or engagement? Is this initial collaborative effort small enough to be manageable? It’s better to fail in a small thing on a short time frame than get sucked into a long-term project that isn’t going well.
  5. How can you prototype the type of relationship you’d like to have over the long term? Could you co-write a blog post, co-host an event? Or co-design a very simple intervention?
  6. The exchange of value doesn’t need to be balanced. Indeed, most “partnerships” rarely are equal exchanges. Smaller / less well-resourced organizations tend to benefit more from partnering with larger ones.
  7. Do both teams have similar technical expertise? Though not required, it certainly helps to be able to speak at the same level.
  8. Will partnering for a project have an impact? Does it reinforce the missions of both organizations?
  9. Is the budget large enough to accomplish goals that matter to both parties?
  10. Is the timing right? Now is never the ideal time to stop work and start building with others, but now is often better than never (see Python Pep 20).
  11. Will the combined effort bring something novel into existence that wasn’t possible separately?
  12. Will the project inspire others to join? This is really important for sustaining the effort beyond a partnership.
  13. Design for collective impact. Both parties should agree to own indicators (see SSRI).
  14. To be more valuable, you must transform the relationship to be less contractual and more a “piece of the operating system” or work culture.
  15. If you remove one key actor does the partnership persist? Then, is it grounded on something of value?
  16. Are the people in the partner organization folks we’d want to work with or are they jerks? Are they smart? Inspiring? Will we learn from them?
  17. Can I explain to my colleagues and boss how this partnership will help me achieve my own key performance indicators/goals within my organization?
  18. Have you considered how partnering will affect the competitive landscape in the sector? E.g. will it strengthen or threaten other groups?
  19. Does this grow the pie for both organizations (and the people they serve) or just split it differently (also known as a “zero sum game”)?
  20. Last but certainly not least, do you believe it will make a positive dent in the universe? Partnerships take effort, and they’re only worth it if you honestly believe the potential impact is real and substantial.

If you’d like to learn more about Keystone’s method for measuring (and managing) the performance of organizations working in partnership with others, contact us.


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