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Nonprofit Partnerships: How to Find and “Marry” the Right Companion

Meaningful partnerships are the foundation for nonprofit success.  These agreements are an absolute necessity for organizations that provide integrated and holistic services. For organizations with limited resources, partnerships are an impactful and cost-effective solution because they allow the organization to focus on what they do best and tap into partners for the rest. 

“Associate yourself with people of good quality, for it is better to be alone than in bad company."

-Booker T. Washington.

The first step in developing a successful collaboration network is choosing the right partners. Far too often, nonprofits choose partners or remain in partnerships out of convenience, because of the history between the organizations, or simply because an organization has access to capital that could benefit them. Partnership is a direct reflection on the organization’s core mission and values. When considering partnerships, nonprofits should follow a careful screening process, similar to dating to find a spouse.  Consider these strategies in building and sustaining strong partnerships:

  • All relationships are NOT created equal:  Mirroring our romantic lives, our non-profit organizational lives will encounter various relationships ranging from acquaintances, to friends, to romantic partners, and spouses. This classification system sets boundaries and expectations that clarify the nature of the relationship between two people at a specific time. Organizational leaders may choose to develop relationships of varying depth in order to meet different needs. Organizations may simply communicate occasionally (e.g., roundtables, task forces). They may have a cooperative agreement. Some may even choose to “marry” - pooling and sharing resources toward a common goal.  This often happens through a formally written agreement - either through a grant award or contract.


  • Know thyself: In a healthy relationship, the first step in finding that special someone is to know who you are and what you need.  Organizational partnerships are about fulfilling an internal need.  How can you fill that need if you have not done an internal analysis of your organization?  An organization seeking partners should be able to identify their own assets that will add value to the work of their partners. Just like a marriage, the best alliances join strength to strength.


  • Do your values match: When building a relationship, compatibility in values, philosophy, and goals is critical.  In order for a collaborative effort to be effective over time, it must be based on both of the partnering organizations’ core values. This foundation of mutual trust is imperative in helping weather the changes or problems that will inevitably occur during the lifecycle of every partnership.


  • Don’t forget about the “relatives”: In any serious relationship, family matters. If your relatives do not agree with your choice in a mate, the relationship may need to be reevaluated.  The same holds true for nonprofit partnerships - not all of your partners will get along. If your existing partners are voicing concerns about a potential new partner, take a step back. This is a sign that you may need to re-evaluate the prospective partnership agreement.   


  • Start small and work towards the altar: Courtship does not begin with a marriage proposal. Instead, relationships are built on smaller gestures such as a dinner, a movie, and conversation to get to know one another better.  Similarly, in the beginning stages of a partnership, it is in the organizations’ best interest to commit to working on a single project, monitor its progress, and then explore the possibilities of growing the relationship.  


  • Growing with the relationship:  When entering into any relationship or partnership, there must be a sense of give and take, which results in growth and a stronger bond between partners. For a professional partnership to work, both entities must develop a common understanding of their weaknesses and draw on each other's strengths, without being uncomfortable about their own vulnerability.


  • Until “incompatibility” do us part:  When a relationship or partnership is not working, it is best to end it as soon and as amicably as possible.  Sustaining a relationship that does not fulfill both partners’ needs is often toxic. Organization leaders must continually monitor the growth and progress of their partnerships. If the partnership is not meeting the desired expectations, partners must work together to make changes, where possible, or develop a graceful exit strategy.


  • Getting to the altar: When it’s working, get it in writing. Develop a memorandum of understanding (MOU) or other written agreement that explicitly delineates the partnership’s intended timeline, goals, outcomes, resources, and deliverables. This important step not only seals the deal, but demonstrates the commitment to a working relationship with accountability measures.

If you wish to receive technical assistance regarding strategic partnering, strategic planning, or program development involving healthy relationships, responsible fatherhood, and/or workforce development, please contact Gerald Ford at

Comments 1 Rating: Be the first person to rate this post.
Nina Olmedo AUGUST 18 2015
This is an excellent article on partnerships. Likening it to a romantic relationship is very innovative, and a concept that anyone can relate to. My only constructive criticism is that the light blue text is very difficult to read.

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