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Strategic Partnerships: An Avenue to Success

Cork board with note stating Luck is not a strategy pinned to it

More and more often we are seeing a number of philanthropists coming together to address a specific problem, for example this announcement from Blue Meridian Partners:

Blue Meridian Partners seeks to transform the life trajectories of our nation’s children and youth living in poverty by investing in strategies that work. Blue Meridian Partners makes large, performance-based investments in scaling up strategies poised to have a national impact on the lives of children and young people living in poverty. Funded organizations must have national reach and a budget greater than $1,000,000.

Announcements such as this one can offer great opportunities, but only if your organization is ready to act. Otherwise these announcements are just an interesting, and maybe somewhat frustrating, read. How do you prepare your small to mid-sized nonprofit organization so you can actually take advantage of these opportunities? 

The key to being ready to apply for these types of funds is to establish a solid, strategic partnership with other organizations whose missions compliment your own. As with all step-by-step procedures you may move through the stages for building a strategic partnership non-sequentially, and you will likely address issues that don’t fit precisely into any one of these steps. However, as an initial guide to help move your thinking forward, let me share some steps to undertake as you develop a strategic partnership. 

Clearly, the first step is to engage your board and other leadership in a discussion around the issue of seeking significant funding to achieve your mission. This requires bold thinking. Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” And this is exactly what this discussion should do—explore the potential for change, dream of how you can achieve your mission, and discover ways to make this happen.

In the 1989 film Field of Dreams, the main character is an Iowa farmer who hears this refrain throughout the film: If you build it, he will come. Since that time, I am sure you’ve heard people restate it as If you build it, they will come. That’s basically how I feel about becoming bold in your grantseeking. I believe that if your organizational leadership can think and act boldly, you will attract the strategic partners, and the funding, you need to fulfill your mission.

Once your organization’s leadership has agreed they want to move forward with a bold new approach, then you have to assess who will make good strategic partners in your endeavor. Before you approach an organization to see if they’d be interested in a partnership, you really have to know who about their existing relationships, network, reach, and of course their own mission. This analysis can take a while and I suggest establishing a committee to do this fairly intensive leg work. Choosing the right partners is crucial to the overall success of addressing your mission. I probably don’t have to say this, but the first two steps need to be undertaken long before you think about potential funders. 

Once you’ve accomplished these two steps, then you’re ready to actually establish the partnership, which will of course involve your organization and several others. There are many articles, books, blog posts, and white papers written about the process of establishing strategic partnerships. Here is one of my favorites: a free publication you can download from the Council on Foundations about how to build effective collaborations. I like this report because it explores the grantmakers’ perspective, and helps you construct partnerships that sing to potential funders. 

Of course, implementing and managing the partnership is a fairly intensive task so it is important to take this into consideration during your annual budgeting process. This isn’t a task you can add to someone else’s already overflowing plate. It requires, and it deserves, a person who is dedicated to making the strategic partnership work. Your organization needs to be fully committed to the vision set forth in the partnership, even though securing substantial funding to support it may be challenging. That said, there are more and more funders who are actually providing support to help these partnerships get off the ground. 

And the final piece of the strategic partnership puzzle is to consistently evaluate the partnership and then re-group and refine the management of the partnership. Revisit your overall goals and objectives on a regular basis and make adjustments as you go forward. 

These new partnerships may, or may not, help you tap into those significant philanthropic funds that seem to be popping up everywhere, but they will undoubtedly move you toward achieving your overall mission. And that, my friends, is the idea!

Cindy AdamsCynthia Adams is founder and CEO of GrantStation, a premiere online funding resource for organizations seeking grants throughout the world. Providing access to a comprehensive online database of grantmakers, GrantStation helps nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, and government agencies make smarter, better-informed grantseeking decisions. GrantStation is dedicated to creating a civil society by assisting the nonprofit sector in its quest to build healthy and effective communities.

Topics: Nonprofit partnerships