Partnership Basics

Partnerships can take many forms but at their core, they provide a framework for mutual benefit between the partners. Benefits received can be both tangible and intrinsic. Partnerships can be formed at many levels within the organization and can be both informal and formal in nature. A key component to developing partnerships is the fostering of relationships. Relationship, mutual respect, and accountability are the foundation of many successful partnerships.

Types of Partnerships

Cross-Sector Partnerships

Cross-sector partnerships are becoming more prevalent as more businesses seek to become a member of their communities through partnerships with community organizations. There is a positive public perception to businesses that engage in cross-sector partnerships to support real issues that communities are facing. (2010)

Cross-sector partnerships often involve organizations that neither look like the organization nor do they have the same overarching and guiding principles. While this can be a challenge, this is a divide that is open for bridge-building. Many long-term and mutually beneficial partnerships have been established through cross-sector partnerships. An article in the June 2018 Journal of Business pointed to research supporting cross-sector partnerships as a key factor in broader, systemic change. (Clarke)

“With great power, comes great responsibility.” (Spiderman) While these partnerships can be immensely beneficial and be a powerful force for good in the world, they require the most effort to establish and maintain the relationship. Finding a common mission and vision is often the key to establishing and maintaining cross-sector partnerships. (2010)

Donor/Recipient Partnerships

Sometimes partners don’t want to be active participants in the organization. However, even without active participation, a donor is supporting an organization because they believe in the mission and they believe the organization is the best equipped to serve the community towards that goal. It’s important to remember a few things in relation to donor/recipient partnerships:

  1. The organization is not just a bank for the donor to deposit money into. They are fiscal managers and they have an obligation to those who trust in them to manage the funds they receive and make a good faith effort to apply them in ways that effectively engage the community in the change efforts the donor is supporting.
  2. While a donor principally agrees to support the organization financially, they are also important resources for leadership within the organization. Effective leaders engage donors within the organization and seek opportunities to establish joint ownership with the community.
  3. Donors are not dictators, organizations are not subject to the demands of the donor and they should not engage with donors that impose unreasonable conditions on donations. Partnerships recognize that both parties are members of the partnership and serve a purpose within the organization.
  4. Open dialogue and a willingness to cooperate will facilitate a mutually beneficial partnership that allows the team to focus on the mission and goals of the organization. (2010 )

Collaborative Partnership

Collaborative partnerships are partnerships that allow organizations to maintain organizational autonomy while working together with another organization. In this type of partnership, each organization can leave the partnership at any time that the partnership ceases to be mutually beneficial. Collaborative partnerships allow the members to share information, participate in collaborative data collection and evaluation, and share information. (2010)

Collaborative partnerships rarely include shared resources, services, or governance. (2010)

Strategic Alliance Partnership

The strategic alliance partnership is unique in that it has both a formal alliance component that includes a limited transfer of power while still maintaining autonomy for the contributing partners. A strategic alliance can bring together multiple organizations for a common purpose and will have a managing council that oversees the partnership. This partnership is designed to address a specific “strategic” mission. (2010)

Integration Partnership

Integration partnerships are similar to the strategic alliance partnership, however, the key difference is that it can involve either a limited transfer of power or a full transfer or consolidation of power. In addition, the transfer of power is a result of organizational restructuring and is typically permanent.

Integration partnerships can be categorized into three forms of partnerships:

Joint ventures are when two or more organizations create a new structure to advance an administrative or program-related function. This form of integration partnership can be limited in scope and both partners retain a portion of autonomy while some functions are interdependent with each member of the partnership.

Parent-subsidiaries are when one organization absorbs another organization as a child organization. The child organization is overseen by the parent organization and is accountable and subject to that organization.

Mergers are when two previously autonomous organizations choose to combine programs in there entirety within a combined organization. This allows for the consolidation of administrative overhead while expanding services to the community. (2010)

Funding Alliance Partnerships

The funding alliance partnership can be similar to the recipient-donor relationship, however, it can also be separate organizations coming together to share a larger funding source such as a grant or donation. (2010)

Cost-Sharing Partnerships

Cost-sharing partnerships are alliances that help to provide the resources for the organization. This can be a mutually beneficial agreement where one organization agrees to provide the facilities, while another organization provides volunteers, maintenance, or supplies. An example of this might be an arrangement for a community pre-school on a church facility. The church provides the facilities, while the pre-school provides staff, materials, and basic maintenance of the space. The church benefits from the exposure within the community, and the pre-school benefits by not having to pay the overhead costs associated with building and maintaining the facility. (2010)

How to Form a Partnership

3 Keys to Forming a Successful Partnership:

1. Identify the need.

  • Can this be accomplished without the help of a partnership?
  • What are the key benefits to each organization in forming this partnership? What’s the win/win?
  • Is this work being done somewhere else?
  • Are there already partnerships working on this? If so, can you join this already existing network for a greater impact? (2010)

2. Build a relationship.

The foundation of a partnership is the relationships that are forged as part of the partnership. Clearly identifying how the partners relate to one another, how they benefit a complement one another, and establishing a strong foundation is a key step in the partnership process. If both members are not fully committed to each other, there is a greater potential for conflicts and friction to arise within the partnership.

  • Who are the members? Do we have the right people in the right roles?
  • Identify the leaders of the partnership.
  • What is the objective? Who will hold what responsibilities within the partnership? What is the accountability plan?
  • What is the shared vision and goals for the partnership?
  • What is the strategic plan for the partnership?
  • How will success be measured? What are the expected benefits of the partnership? (2010)

3. Create a framework.

A framework is a formal document that outlines the mission and vision of the partnership and develops a framework from which the partnership will operate to achieve those goals Some key considerations to include within this framework include:

  • What is the shared vision and mission for the partnership? How will this vision and mission be communicated?
  • Are the goals measurable and what measurements will be used to determine success?
  • What are the responsibilities for each partner and participating members of the partnership? Clearly define the added value that the partnership brings. Identify the decision-making process, the chain of command for decision making, the activities of the partnership, and how the partnership will be represented.
  • What skills will be required for successful implementation and how will the members of the partnership acquire needed skills?
  • What investment commitments are each organization committing to the relationship? Be specific: this should include financial resources, people resources, supply resources, any other types of resources that will benefit and grow the partnerships.
  • How will the partnership communicate both internally and externally to other partners, supporters, and the general public? (2010)

Partnership Cycle

Partners come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The time frame of a partnership can be from a single day up to many years. However, each partnership will flow through a cycle. Some long-term partnerships may complete the cycle many times as the partnership grows and evolves but the basic principles will always remain the same.

Step 1: The partnership starts by identifying a partnership that has the potential to provide a mutual benefit while advancing the mission of the organization.

Step 2: Once a partner is identified the members of the partnership proceed to design the partnership by creating formalized agreements that include an operating blueprint for the partnership.

Step 3: The partnership is monitored for a specified period of time, data is collected, and reports are provided on the progress and status of the partnership.

Step 4: The partnership ends when one or both parties agree to end the partnership due to an inability to perform or ineffectiveness. Sometimes partners agree to suspend the partnership for a period of time in order to re-evaluate and re-negotiate the partnership, in which case the partnership re-enters the cycle. Other times, a partnership is highly effective and beneficial. Both parties agree to continue the partnership, however, because a partnership is a living entity it is necessary to re-negotiate the terms of the partnership and re-define the mission and goals moving forward. (2018)

Identifying Partners

Partner identification is a crucial step in the partnership cycle. Organizations can better equip themselves to identify potential partners by taking a few preparatory steps first.

Before looking for partners organizations need to:

  • Clearly define their own mission and vision.
  • Identify any non-negotiable terms of a partnership agreement. For example: What are the core values of your organization that must be shared by any potential partners? Are there any disqualifying activities, beliefs, or conditions that would prevent you from partnering with a specific individual or organization?
  • What other factors would a potential partner possess?
    • Expertise or experience in a given location or field.
    • Proposal aspects such as timeline, approach, or plans.
    • Resources or types of resources they intend to bring to the partnership. For example, a well-funded organization might have a greater need for volunteers or ideas rather than financial resources. While another organization may have a well researched, and well-designed plan but lack the funds to implement the program. (2018)

Real-World Partnerships

Partnerships can take many forms. The two organizations we are looking at have very different partnership needs, this requires them to tailor their work to meet the needs of the clients they serve. Hope & A future provides some valuable insight into the process of developing a formal partnership, as well as, a key aspect of maintaining informal partnerships. While the House of Refuge shows us how valuable informal partnerships can be within an organization with an emphasis on relationships that further the organizational mission.

Hope & A Future has both formal informal partnerships. Because of the nature of their work with children, many partnerships are coordinated through a formal partnership process. This includes an initial phone/email interview to ensure that the partnership is a good fit. When a “good fit” partnership is identified they prefer to meet face-to-face to review details and develop a preliminary agreement with the company. This face-to-face meeting allows them to gauge important details of the partnership such as the seriousness of the partner to engage in the program. During this meeting, they have a basic agenda that they follow to ensure that they are covering all the important aspects of the partnership. From this initial meeting, the partnership agreement is formed and then finalized. They emphasized the need to continually monitor the partnership through regular check-ins and engagement to build the relationship. Although a large portion of the partnerships are formal agreements, they also have many informal partnerships with individuals and organizations that provide services and resources for them. Many of these partnerships have been long-term and they have built a strong relationship bond over the years that allows for mutual trust. One thing they emphasized with these informal partnerships is the need for consistency. Consistency helps develop a mutual understanding of expectations that facilitate the success of these informal partnerships.

The House of Refuge forms partnerships both through formal and informal means. Formal agreements are established through a memorandum of understanding and is ultimately signed off by leadership within the organization. These agreements often have specific guidelines that must be regularly reported on to ensure that they are adhering to the terms of the agreement. Informal agreements are built through a relationship with the partners. Many of the informal agreements are focused on advocation for their members. For example, they have partnered with several companies and educational institutions to ensure that their members are “seen”. Members have experienced a disadvantage through traumatic circumstances that resulted in homelessness. Because of this, they have worked with partners to develop systems to ensure that their members are “seen”. By ensuring that applications are reviewed by a person, that they receive needed evaluations for educational services they may be entitled to, etc… they are able to improve outcomes for their members that put in the work needed to work past the trauma that they have endured.


Clarke, A. & Crane, A. J Bus Ethics (2018) 150: 303. (Links to an external site.)

Forum, C. I. (n.d.). Resources. Retrieved October 26, 2019, from (Links to an external site.)

Identifying CSO Partners. (2018, August 10). Retrieved October 26, 2019, from (Links to an external site.)

Strengthening Nonprofits: A Capacity Builder’s Library (2010). Partnerships: Frameworks for Working Together, Chapter 2: Partnership Types. National Resource Centers.  Retrieved from: (Links to an external site.)