Thread Director Holly Richardson offers advice on how to structure external partnerships to ensure they are mutually beneficial
Thread has helped several nonprofits set parameters around external partnerships, such as cause marketing or a celebrity ambassadorship, so that staff know when they’re worth the time and when it’s better to politely pass. Follow our process to ensure your team is evaluating exciting opportunities with staff time in mind.
If it feels like your organization is having to work harder and harder to keep up its visibility in the nonprofit sector, that feeling is true. As reported by the National Center for Charitable Statistics, the nonprofit sector continues to grow at a boom pace – from 2005 to 2015, the number of nonprofits registered with the IRS swelled by 10.4% (1.41M to 1.56M).
That’s a lot of new nonprofits.
As things grow increasingly crowded and competitive, so does the need to get more creative with your external partnerships. In order to maximize your own exposure, so the advice goes, leverage a bigger name. Sync up with a well-known brand on a cause marketing campaign. Engage a celebrity to champion your cause.
At Thread Strategies, we absolutely embrace the value a great external partnership can have in elevating your name above the competition.
We also believe firmly that your time and attention are precious and already pulled in eighteen different directions. It follows, then, that just because you can launch an external partnership, doesn’t always mean you should. You have to decide if the opportunity is really worth not just the heightened exposure or dollars raised, but the actual work it will cost you as well.
After all, there is no free lunch.
We’ve helped several nonprofits set parameters on what makes an external partnership, such as a cause marketing campaign or a celebrity relationship, worth their time, and when they should politely pass.
We always start with probing the level of mission alignment. Any external partnership should ideally have an obvious connection to your work. If you have to do a lot of fancy footwork to explain the partnership, you risk tripping over your own feet.
Next we help identify who is going to be the internal owner of the external partnership – the person really responsible for seeing it through. Successful external partnerships are not driverless cars. They need someone at the wheel to keep them on course. We maintain that if you or your staff simply don’t have the time to drive, then don’t start the car.
Still focused on capacity and logistics, we work to break down the timeline of the external partnership in detail. This involves asking questions such as: if you take on extra work at an already busy time of year, is that manageable? What’s the execution timeline look like – days, weeks, months? And is that sustainable for you? How often will you need to check in with the external partner, and do you have time for that? When can you expect to see the fruits of your partnership’s labors? So much of life comes down to timing, and external partnerships are no exception.
We also seek to empower nonprofit leaders to articulate what they really want from external partnerships. Small nonprofits often fall prey to their own gratitude. They’re so excited to be offered an external partnership that they’ll take whatever it yields, even if it’s not actually very helpful. It’s worth it for your development, communications, program, and leadership teams to brainstorm together what the organization really needs from an external partnership – new followers, money, media exposure, etc. – and to make your needs clear to your potential partner. Don’t settle for apples when you actually wanted oranges.
Then there’s the issue of how to protect your greatest asset: your brand. Increasing exposure to your organization’s brand must also entail outlining how you will protect it. To do this, we recommend being ready with policies and guidelines on your logo, approved abbreviations, and allowable and prohibited messaging and phrasing.
One area where nonprofits can learn from each other is in regard to what activities to allow, and which are off the table. We can all thank Google for making it easy to find examples of partnership agreements that spell out allowable versus prohibited activities. For example, if your cause marketing partner wanted to do telemarketing, would you be okay with that? If not, don’t let them do it!
At Thread, we love setting processes. Accordingly, we are always sure to get these expectations and policies on paper. It’s valuable to do the work once of setting out what’s worth your time and what’s not, and then your expectations are known, your policies set, and your confidence is higher.
If you have a story of a great experience with external partnerships, let us know! Or if there’s a horror story we can all learn from, tell us that too! Reach out to us at [email protected] to share your experiences.
And, if you need help developing your own partnership expectation and policy documents, or if you just want to talk more about how to go about external partnerships for your particular organization, let us know! We’d love to help. We’re always here at [email protected].