Better Together? Ten Considerations for Successful Strategic Partnerships
Marsha L. Semmel
[adapted from a Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African-American History and Culture Convening, 2016]
Increasingly, museums, nonprofits, corporations, and foundations recognize that achieving meaningful outcomes and addressing significant cultural, societal, and educational challenges requires strategic collaborations and partnerships. In our networked world, no one organization has the resources, or reach, to go it alone. Yet, the root of “collaboration” is “labor”: partnerships take work, time, and effort. Here are some thoughts about forming and sustaining successful partnerships. In reviewing these considerations, it is important to keep in mind that there are many different types of partnerships, each with unique characteristics, lifespan, and governance structure.
Know thyself! What are you trying to accomplish, and what are you equipped to do on your own? In what ways might partnerships further your organization’s (or unit’s) goals?
“How can one plus one equal three?” What are some strategic reasons for joining forces with partner organizations? What might partnerships accomplish that the individual organizations cannot do on their own, while still supporting each partner’s mission and goals? What community need can be addressed?
Connect before Content. Who are some likely partners or stakeholders to be approached? Begin to build relationships. Dedicate time to get to develop trust, brainstorm possibilities, getting to know potential partners; share respective goals. Consider some ‘unusual suspects.’ Be open to unforeseen possibilities. Be willing to say ‘thanks and goodbye’ if the prospects are not promising.
Clearly define the partnership and ensure that all partners (and stakeholders) agree to the project and its terms. Are the goals realistic? Can they be accomplished within the designated time frame? Are there identified project milestones? How often, and in what way, will the partners meet? What resources (human, fiscal, physical, technological, etc.) will be required (and committed) to launch and manage the partnership? Recognize that partners may contribute different types of support, including people, money, content knowledge, access to (and membership in) the target community, operational infrastructure, and technological expertise.
Identify the “Wrangler.” Who will have the responsibility and authority to manage the partnership? Will that person have the necessary time and resources to devote to the project? What does the partnership “organization chart” look like? Is there an advisory body that oversees the day-to-day project management?
Get the right people on the bus. Are the appropriate people on the partnership team? Do they have the training, skills, knowledge, and resources they need to make the partnership a success? Do they understand their roles? Has the core team mapped the broader project community to ensure that others with influence, needs, or stakes in the project will be kept apprised of the partnership’s progress?
“Lean into” the inevitable changes that will occur. Recognize that successful partnerships are complex, dynamic, and evolving. Understand that new players (individuals and organizations) require attention and orientation. Take small steps. Be willing to modify your course. Be open to new opportunities and outcomes. Consider not only the project, but also the ‘sticky residue’ of the relationships formed by the partnership that could inform future collaborations.
Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Consider the many necessary avenues of communication that a successful partnership requires: within the partnership, with the appropriate stakeholders and colleagues within each partner organization, with the target audiences, funders, and other community stakeholders. Agree on talking points and appropriate credits for the partnership announcement and other public communications. Who needs to know what, and when? Who is empowered to be partnership spokespersons?
Periodically, take the project’s pulse. Beyond the project activities themselves, explore partner insights, the nature of evolving relationships, and the impact of changes in the broader environment. Are the partners supporting their own learning capacity by creating feedback loops and sharing information? Are they capturing the effective partnership principles that are emerging? Is there time to reflect on the role of the partnership within the larger organizational or community context?
Document, Evaluate, Celebrate. Even if the goals are lofty, is the partnership “right-sized” to be achievable? What will success look like? How are project outcomes defined? Is the evaluation plan flexible enough to accommodate and capture unforeseen outcomes? Is there time to commemorate, and celebrate, project milestones?
Last update: May 11, 2022