We hear certain wise sayings from time to time. “Wise sayings” is another term for platitudes or clichés. (I actually prefer “bromide,” which feels like it can be a simple solution to complex problems while also delivering fast heartburn relief.) These pithy phrases, when repeated enough, tend to become “facts.”

How often have you heard that nonprofits should “collaborate,” “form partnerships,” develop “cross-sector solutions,” or seek “collective impact?”  The language trends change, but the idea is the same: Working together is good, and clearly better than working alone.

But is it?

Most bromides are based on a reasonable premise. Civilization, technology and many other things most of generally enjoy would be impossible without extensive collaboration. The idea that working together is a good thing is not a bad initial hypothesis. A reasonable starting point, however, is not always a good destination. Further, very few effective strategies emerge from a predetermined outcome.

What I’m suggesting here is that partnership may generally be effective for nonprofits, but it may not always be the best approach. A fair generalization doesn’t release us from the responsibility of critical thinking.

Collaboration and partnership are the means to ends, not ends in themselves. No organization I’ve ever encountered has the mission of collaborating with other organizations. We therefore need criteria for choosing partnership as a tactic. We also need to know when it’s not the best approach. This, in turn, suggests that we need a systematic way to evaluate the effectiveness of a partnership, real or conceptual.

Every organizational strategy has costs and benefits. Very often there are two or more alternatives that also have costs and benefits. To make a wise decision, we need to assess and compare the options. How would you do this with something as amorphous as a partnership?

As my father would say, “Very carefully.”

Which criteria should your nonprofit use when considering a new partnership?

Which criteria should your nonprofit use when considering a new partnership?

We'll need to estimate outcomes and risks, as well as the true costs of implementation. True costs include both the value of the time required to build and maintain a partnership (time is money, according to a wise saying), and the opportunity cost—the value of everything you could be doing if you weren’t investing time (i.e. money) in the partnership.

The soft costs of partnership often get buried beneath the rubble of effort it takes to make them work—this is to say they are usually ignored.

Now it might seem that I’m a bit cynical here, but really I’m not. I like partnerships when they work. I’ve observed that some succeed and others fail, and many nonprofits feel compelled to collaborate regardless--it often seems that collaboration is the goal, and that's bass-ackwards. I’ve also observed nonprofits avoiding potentially bountiful alliances for petty or inane reasons, or simply fear of the unknown. I’m not crazy about fear avoidance as a leadership principle either.

I suggest that rather than “partnerships are good,” we should be saying that “good partnerships are good,” and focusing on how to identify the distinctions between the good, the bad and the ugly.

Public Interest Management Group has a workshop on partnership models that presents a range of alternatives and a framework for assessing options. This year we’ll be adding to the toolkit with a new methodology for assessing the impact of nonprofit partnerships. This process will incorporate cost-benefit analysis into an indicator that can give a “green,” “yellow,” or “red” light for any existing or planned partnership. It will help managers and boards make clear decisions on how to allocate time and resources. We'll incorporate Partnership Analysis into organizational assessments.

Every collaboration should contribute to organizational success, or organizations should try something else. Partnerships should be set up to succeed. Where that’s not happening, we need to tweak, adjust, measure, evaluate, and when appropriate, avoid or even abandon. The world needs successful community-based organizations and outcomes. If we focus on that goal, effective partnerships will emerge and endure. But DIY can change the world too. Smart analysis can help determine the best course.

If this discussion causes anxiety, I fully agree. Pass me a bromide…



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