The Power of Possibility – Starting the Conversation around Strategic Partnerships

Presented by Kate Barr, president & CEO, Propel Nonprofits; Bob Harrington, partner, La Piana Consulting; and Jenifer Gager Holland, senior director of programs & consulting, BoardSource

In this session, panelists Bob Harrington and Kate Barr shared their reflections on what’s possible when organizations come together for long-term durable partnerships. Moderated by Jenifer Holland, the panel offered insights about what works, pitfalls to avoid, and strategies for nonprofit leaders interested in exploring options for collaboration. Here are some of the session’s takeaways:

  • Partnerships come in all shapes and sizes. While some nonprofits join forces to conduct mutual client referrals and or to merge corporate structures, a vast and varied range of partnerships can be found between those two poles. Nonprofits wishing to fulfill their core purposes unconstrained by organizational boundaries have options. For example, they might form an alliance, offer (or seek) fiscal sponsorship, or engage in joint programming together. The audience was directed to a “collaborative map” designed by La Piana Consulting and The Power of Possibility website for additional resources about the range of long-term, durable partnerships.
  • Successful collaborators are always scanning the horizon. The practice of taking stock of other nonprofits in your operating environment need not be relegated to a sustainability planning exercise. Organizations that understand the power of possibility are constantly paying attention to organizations that are relevant to their core purposes. Dedicating the time to cultivating an understanding of peer organizations’ priorities, strengths, and challenges allows you to proactively seize on the moments when an alliance might do the most good.
  • Thoughtful partnerships are intentional. Even if the partnership itself wasn’t planned from ground zero, such as was the case with EMPath (an organization profiled on The Power of Possibility website), in the big picture, the kind of partnerships that surpass short-term serial relationships take time. Just because a strategic alliances and restructuring options doesn’t require a change in legal structure, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t require relationship-building and trust. Board members and chief executives are served well when they set a tone for one another of honest, open, exploration, and when they set aside time to build relationships and assess partner and cultural alignment. The good news is that short-term, one-time partnerships — when successful — can set the stage for other opportunities. For example, it is not uncommon for organizations that ultimately merge to have previously engaged in joint programming together. 
  • Proactive honesty is the best policy. Nonprofit leaders sometimes worry about what others with think if they engage in a mutual exploration of a long-term collaboration with one another. What will donors think? What will staff think? What will the community-at-large or other stakeholders think? Thankfully, you don’t have to have a crystal ball to communicate effectively. A commitment to sharing information proactively as you consider long-term strategic alliances and partnerships goes a long way toward building and retaining trust — even if the message is simple or not-yet-comprehensive. While you don’t have to reveal details prematurely, you and your potential partner can share information proactively in phases. It’s OK to tell donors or staff: “We’re in an exploration phase, and it’s not yet clear what the outcome will be. We’ll share further details when available.

Session materials