Partnering – What, Who, When and How Exactly?

A close look at the opportunities and risks of partnering, and how to create truly valuable partnerships for everyone involved.

by Sarah Ulrich, January 15, 2018

This article was originally published on the Z Blog by Benckiser Stiftung Zukunft.

We use the term ‘partner’ quite liberally in civil society. As soon as a printing house gives us favorable discounts on a flyer, it becomes our media partner. If we have met an organization to discuss similar challenges, it becomes our cooperation partner. Sponsors, irrespective of whether they just give money or also offer content-related attributes, receive the title of dedicated partner. Because partnership is nothing but a positive and desirable thing, right? Yes and no. It is not as simple as we sometimes make out.

Real partnerships are a complex matter. They are based on principles such as equality, respect, mutual appreciation, equal footing, transparency, sincerity, mutual support and shared added value. The effort involved in establishing and maintaining partnerships that comply with these principles should not be underestimated. Generally speaking, it not only requires the cultivation of relationships but also certain formal regulations, i.e. actual agreements, to initiate, run and finally, when it has served its purpose, end a functioning partnership. 

Collaborative partnerships?

So what happens when two or more parties want to join forces to create something together co-creatively based on the pooling of specific resources and skills? – Take a partnership between a company and an NPO (see also blog post of 02/22/2017) for the purposes of implementing a program for the common good, for instance. Do the partners value each other equally here? Rarely. The company likes to see the non-profit organization as unorganized or even unprofessional, as notorious idealists without any sense of efficiency or sufficient effectiveness. The employees of the NPO, on the contrary, might see the company as a cash cow which should preferably only contribute to the financial side of things, and best not get involved in the content since its benchmarks are only geared towards output, rather than outcome. Neither equal footing nor respect can develop on this basis. The NPO might become non-transparent in its communication with the company, since it is afraid of not being able to comply with its output benchmarks and being considered unprofessional. The company withdraws its support because it feels it is not taken seriously when it comes to participation in content. Ultimately, the partners are so divided on the objectives of cooperation that no shared value can be achieved.

Added value and risks of true partnerships

However, this doesn’t mean that collaborative partnerships (including across sectors) don’t work or bring no added value. In an effective, healthy partnership, partners can use each other’s networks and exchange specific experiences – common reflections lead to new inspiring ideas. A true partnership is a pillar of sustainability, since it is part of a shared understanding of added value and not just sparking a flash in the pan. It is also a catalyst for innovation as the pooling of certain resources can deliver solutions that could not have been realized by the parties on an individual basis. Both parties have space to learn from one another and further develop in a good partnership. Ideally, cooperation also leads to an enhanced reputation for all parties involved.

On the other hand, certain risks must be noted – even in partnerships that start off well. In a close cooperation, the organizational boundaries can occasionally become blurred, risking the loss of autonomy and loss of one’s own essence. Conflicts of interest can arise which, if they cannot be solved, can cause the entire cooperation and the related project to fail. The overloading of time and material resources can also be critical – the coordination effort needed to successfully design a partnership should not be underestimated on either side. In rare cases, a supposedly negative reputation of one partner passes over to the other. 

In order to minimize risks, a due diligence assessment is recommended in the run-up:

Does the (anticipated) partner have...
...a good reputation (in its own sector and in other sectors)? appropriate track record of success and experience?
...a network and contacts that it is willing to share?
...access to relevant information, experience and resources?
...complementary competencies?
...good management and a positive leadership culture?
...(financial) stability and reliability?
...reliable, good staff?

These questions are also important for figuring out whether you will make a good partner yourself.

Formal criteria for a successful partnership

When shaping a partnership, some formal aspects significantly contribute towards its success. The seven most important ones are listed in the following. It also comes down to certain soft skills at the level of those involved, such as gut feeling, understanding of human nature, interpersonal skills, critical thinking and personal commitment.


Solid foundation thanks to shared impact logic

Finally, it is helpful for a partnership if there is a common understanding of impact orientation and, where possible, a common and distinctly formulated impact logic (input, output, outcome and impact), which defines the parameters of a successful project implemented within the partnership right at the outset and can thus be considered a common benchmark. The challenge here is the fact that logics of value creation can fall apart in inter-sectoral partnerships. While social participation might be considered a guiding principle at an NPO, a company can be guided by a more profit-oriented logic. Adapting the logic of the partner is impractical. On the contrary, common interests should predetermine the approach. This is also part of an upstream agreement process.

An agreement basis can be effectively created with a jointly developed impact logic. The key questions are:


The end of a partnership

Ros Tennyson of ‘The Partnering Initiative’ (UK) provides a wise summary: “Messy endings virtually guarantee that the value of what has gone on before, however good, is seriously undermined and marginalized.”

For this reason, there should be ‘exit criteria’ and agreements on the so-called ‘natural end’ (once all objectives have been achieved) right at the beginning of the partnership. A dignified, solemn and, in all cases, (both internally and externally) well communicated end – for example, in the form of a final report – is an essential component of the partnership.

Partnering broker

Since a partnership requires a considerable amount of coordination, particularly if it includes more than two parties, it is often practical to work with an independent ‘partnering broker’. This person can monitor the process, for instance, the creation of an impact logic or the formulation of a partnering agreement in line with the aforementioned criteria, as a moderator. However, they can also be commissioned to look for suitable partners and initiate partnerships.

The graduated psychologist Sarah Ulrich leads the impact orientation department within the German Non Profit Organization EDUCATION Y. She supports all programs of the organization regarding impact planning and assessment, and develops project specific instruments for impact orientation. In lectures and texts, Sarah shares the results and findings of her work with stakeholders in the social sector. In addition, she offers impact orientation counseling on a freelance basis.