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Meeting your match: 5 Steps to Successful Cross-Sector Partnerships

Social sector organizations are no longer called charities, and even the term “nonprofit” is falling out of favor, for good reason. The level of professionalism and results orientation in the nonprofit sector has increased dramatically, and the line between for-profit and nonprofit is increasingly blurred. The dynamic of a corporation or foundation as benefactor and a nonprofit organization as grateful recipient, though, is tough to shake.

How can social entrepreneurs feel like they’re on a level playing field? When considering partnership strategy, social sector leaders need to take stock of what their organization has to offer, with an eye on how they are uniquely positioned to add value to potential partners.

  1. Evaluate your strengths. Small or new organizations can’t offer the levels of brand recognition of more established organizations. But every nonprofit can offer a unique combination of assets that could add value to a potential partner. Maybe you have a vibrant in-person and/or online community, with strong constituent relationships. You may offer a more entrepreneurial perspective, or provide unique insights into emerging challenges or trends or in your sector. Finally, collaboration or programming with your organization could help establish the partner’s credibility in a new area.

  1. Understand what won’t work for you. Determining what you can’t or won’t offer to a potential partner is as vital as envisioning how you do want your partnerships to evolve. Some companies are interested in large-scale volunteer opportunities, but is your organization prepared to handle those well? If not, what alternatives can you offer confidently, such as mentorship or pro bono consulting? Will you provide direct access to constituents, through in-person contact, or via social media campaigns? Know your limits on what information and access can and should be shared before the subject comes up.

  1. Refine your message. Most social sector organizations focus communications on what they do, how they do it, and what they’ve accomplished. To attract partners, however, you should enhance these messages to highlight your unique value and assets. A dynamic invitation to create shared impact shouldn’t be relegated to the “Get Involved” section of your web site; it should be an integral part of both your strategy and your communications.

  1. Identify your ideal prospects. Make your own list! No magazine’s “2018’s Most Innovative Foundations” or “Top 10 Corporate Citizens” constitute your organization’s highest potential partners. Start with organizations whose values and purpose align most closely with yours. Then, look closely at what you’ve identified as your greatest assets and needs and find organizations whose strengths complement, rather than match, your own.

  1. Be creative! Financial contributions are important, but establishing trust and building relationships is far more critical for long-term success. Identify engagement and collaboration opportunities that aren’t focused on funding, at least initially. How might you add value to their employee base through pro bono or other volunteer opportunities? Does the partner have products or even office space to donate, either for a special event or longer term? Can you publish a joint paper on a topic of pressing concern to both organizations?

A partnership strategy can only be successful if given careful thought and preparation. Be proactive. Reach out to unusual suspects. Come up with – and be open to – innovative ideas that engage people throughout the partner organization on various levels. Recognize that no matter the size or scope of the organizations involved, the best partnerships happen when both parties are on equal footing.

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