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By Victoria Hostin, Canopy Advisor

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

— Albert Einstein

Anyone reading this can find some aspect of life that rings true to Einstein’s wisdom. Whether you are parenting a child, hitting a tennis ball into the net over and over, or figuring out how to generate greater impact for your non-profit organization, the key to getting different results is to stop, reflect, and then make a change. That is much easier said than done, as change is known to be pretty hard.  But, if you are feeling insane and looking for different results, stop and reflect on the concept of a partnership for your organization.

What makes a partnership a partnership?

Partnerships come in all different forms: from public-private partnerships with nuanced definitions to strategic alignments, collaborations and mergers between non-profits.  No matter the form it takes, a successful partnership brings together organizations that have a common purpose and share in the rewards as well as the risks.  For non-profits, partnerships often result in sharing funding, which may be cause for trepidation among non-profit administrators.  Before you shut the door on the idea of a partnership, consider whether or not your organization will meet its mission more effectively and with better results – despite the possibility of sharing a part of your funding stream with a partner.

A mission driven process

Metaphorically, a mission statement is the “wind that brings you to the desired harbor, it guides your travel and powers your momentum.[1]”  Changing direction might not look like what you originally imagined for your organization, it might feel like you are loosing leverage or giving up a piece of the funding, but from the perspective of a funder, partnerships are attractive and reflect efficiencies in organizations.   A community relations manager at a Denver area Fortune 500 company who reviews hundreds of grant applications noted, “I see seven to ten applications from organizations with nearly identical missions all applying for the same pot of money; it’s so competitive and I always wonder if they realize how much more effective they would be if they were working together.”

Realized efficiencies

Creating efficiencies in an organization can often translate to a fundamental restructuring of staff.  A perfect example of this is an award winning public-private partnership between the City of Centennial, Colorado and CH2M Hill, an environmental and engineering consulting company headquartered in Centennial.  Under the direction of Mayor Cathy Noon, Centennial has pursued a “contract city” policy.  In 2008, Centennial public works director, David Zelenok, led the partnership initiative to completely outsource all of Centennial’s public works to the private sector. This partnership model has been nationally recognized and ultimately led to the elimination of Mr. Zelenok’s position as public works director. He now serves as the Chief Innovation Officer for the city of Centennial and spends his time, “instilling a culture of ‘thinking outside the box’” and seeking opportunities “that lead to partnerships and unique ways of structuring or restructuring the basic functions of our government.”

The unexpected partner

Weather you work with a for profit-company or a non-profit organization, you have competitors who secure more funding, attract more donors, or take more market share. In the field of education, charter schools and school districts are text-book competitors: for ever child a charter school enrolls, the less funding a district has to operate with.  Despite the seemingly obvious conflict of interest, sometimes a partnership with a “competitor” is worth investigating.

First State Montessori Academy, a charter school, partnered with the local Delaware school district to launch the first  public Montessori program in the state of Delaware.

First State Montessori Academy, a Delaware charter school, faced a string of challenges in their initial two years of applying for a charter.  When it seemed they had hit a brick wall with Delaware’s Charter School Accountability Committee and were looking at a two and a half year lag before Montessori public education was a reality in Delaware, the charter board stopped and reflected on their options.  A board member finally suggested talking to the Districts to see if they would either charter the school or start a program.  It seemed ludicrous at first, but in the end it was a success.  It worked because the boards of both organizations put competition aside and focused on their respective missions.  Together these two competing entities – a charter school board and a school district – managed to launch the first Montessori public program in the State within fourteen months of their first meeting.

How to get started

The co-architect of a partnership is likely going to be a peer whom you already know (or know of): a professional working in your non-profit’s field of interest, a perceived competitor, or perhaps a private company that you are already engaged with in a service relationship.  Before you pick up the phone or send an email, the stop and reflect stage is crucial for mapping out the goals and desired outcomes of a possible partnership.  This is when Einstein’s take on insanity comes in – in short you need to make a change.

Recognizing that change is coming may be especially challenging for a small non-profit where dedicated, long-tenured staff members are not just professionally invested in their organizations, but very often are personally and emotionally invested in the purpose of their non-profit.   When this is the situation, it is easy to become stuck in organizational norms: “this is how we have always done it.”

Bringing in outside support will help facilitate two importation phases of starting and structuring a partnership.  A consultant brings experience, a fresh perspective and an objective voice to the process, enabling you to see the big picture and recognize how changing your approach does not mean changing your purpose.   Once a partner is on board and the details of sharing risks and benefits are taking shape, outside support is again recommended.  Effective partnerships require sound documentation that delineates goals and outcomes, structures responsibilities, assigns liability, identifies revenue streams, and clarifies how income is shared.   Depending on your needs, a letter of intent, memorandum of understanding and/or contract will be required and legal counsel is essential for those documents.


The links embedded in this post provide additional insight to different partnerships and the various ways they are structured, which can help spark ideas for what can work in your organization.  Now that you have stopped to read this post, reflect on the possibility of a partnership; it’s the sane thing to do!


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