Changing Direction

A guide for transitioning and closing partnerships

The one constant in any organization is, change. Organizations mimic life in that they are a living entity. They grow, adapt, change, and end. Its the cycle of life and no person or organization is exempt from the process. While sometimes organizational partnerships end, it is also common that they reach transition points that require them to re-align and adjust to the changing environment. Having plans in place to navigate those transitions allows the organization to scale its impact forward.

Transition or Closure

Transitions occur when we have a major life event, something life-changing that causes us to take pause and reflect on what’s next. These changes often cause course corrections and re-alignment. Sometimes they require that we do some pruning to open the opportunity for new growth.

Every partnership should include within its governing documents, terms for re-assessment of the partnership. Periods of re-assessment need to allow for open and honest discourse between the partners to identify motivating factors and determine when the partnership is no-longer viable.

Including regular review periods allows partnerships to reflect and collect important data on the health of the partnership. These glimpses can help partnerships adjust course when necessary, as well as, recognize when its time to begin the dissolution process and allows both parties to define an exit plan that allows the partnership time for learning and closure.

Some partnerships are not meant to continue forever, their goal is to provide a bridge that allows the “partner” to become self-sustaining. Regular check-ups can serve as guideposts that indicate when it is time to start winding down the partnership and gently release the partner organization so they can learn to thrive independently of the partnership. (Unicef, 2017)

Closing with Grace

Endings feel – final! Moving to a new city, leaving a job, saying goodbye to a friend, all of these events are often filled with mixed emotions. Excitement for the opportunities and new adventures ahead but clouded by sadness for what once was. How we face endings has the power to shape and define us in ways that have a lasting impact. The same is true of organizational endings.

Preparing how your partnership will close provides an opportunity to lay a framework for reflection, learning, and growth. It provides an opportunity for the grieving process to take place, to celebrate the successes and learn from the challenges. While closure does mean that the life cycle is ending, the next step in the cycle is birth. New beginnings and new opportunities. Partnership organizers can facilitate this closing process by establishing guidelines for how they will wind down at the end of the partnership. (Strengthening Nonprofits, 2010)

Tools for Winding Down

  • Begin with the end in mind: prepare periodic evaluations that allow for the reflection on the successes and challenges of the partnership.
  • Establish procedures for reporting lessons learned that can be consolidated and reflected upon at the end of the partnership.
  • Take time to evaluate the data, celebrate success, and identify whats next.
  • Long-Term partnerships should plan for the dissolution of the partnership including provisions for the division of assets acquired through the partnership, satisfaction of debts, and document retention requirements.

(Strengthening Nonprofits: A Capacity Builder’s Library, 2010)

Collective Impact: Backbone Support

The backbone of support is a key aspect of the collective impact model. The backbone serves as a guide to partner organizations to fulfill the shared vision. On the surface a backbone organization might be construed as unnecessary overhead, however, they serve an important purpose and when done well they do represent a high return on investment for their partners.

Backbone Organizations:

  1. Guide vision and strategy
  2. Support aligned activities
  3. Establish shared measurement practices
  4. Build public will
  5. Advance policy
  6. Mobilize Funding

(Turner, 2012)

Having a central collective allows for greater alignment to the overall vision. Shared measurement allows the backbone organization to aggregate data from more sources and paints a clearer picture of existing resources, gaps in services, and areas of over or undersaturation. This allows partner organizations to tailor services for greater impact.

One of the major advantages to the backbone support organization is its ability to influence public perception and advance policy in support of the initiative. This is, in part, a result of having developed a shared vision, supported aligning activities, and establishing measurement practices. This combination allows the collective to focus their message more effectively, painting a clear picture of the current state of affairs, the impact the efforts are producing, and the steps needed to continue making forward progress toward the goal. (Turner, 2012)

Resources for Developing a Backbone Organization


CollaborateUp (2018). Backbone Organizations: A Field Guide 27 Ways to Drive Impact in Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives. Retrieved from:

Strengthening Nonprofits: A Capacity Builder’s Library (2010). Partnerships: Frameworks for Working Together, Chapter 7: Transitions and Ending. National Resource Centers.  Retrieved from:

The Strategic Backbone Toolkit (2014). Retrieved November 23, 2019, from

Turner, S., Merchant, K., Kania, J. & Martin, E. (2012) Understanding the Value of Backbone Organizations in Collective Impact: Part I. Stanford Social Innovation Review, July 2012.  Retrieved from: (Links to an external site.) 

UNICEF. (2017).Concluding, Suspending, and Terminating Partnerships. Civil Society Partnerships. Retrieved From:

UNICEF. (2017). Partnership in Humanitarian Response. Civil Society Partnerships. Retrieved From: (Links to an external site.)