Like any other business, nonprofit organizations spend a lot of time thinking about how to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace. How are they helping feed the homeless or heal the sick? What makes what they do and how they do it unique and worthy of support?
This type of inward thinking is critical in developing impactful marketing and fundraising solicitations. However, when your goal is making real, lasting change, it is just as important to look outside of your organization.
As much as we’d like to think our nonprofit organizations are uniquely equipped to change the world, we can’t always do it on our own. If we’re to have a true and lasting impact on our missions, partnerships are an essential part of our existence. It takes everybody rowing in the same direction, tackling each project hand-in-hand and focusing more on reaching our common goals than on who gets credit for the effort.
The problem for many nonprofits is not just admitting this reality but learning how to find those essential partners. Perhaps even more important, though, is identifying partners who are the right fit for both our organizations and our beneficiaries.
The Bigger The Goal, The More Important The Partnerships
Having big goals is a necessary part of how we let our donors know exactly what we are reaching for. At Susan G. Komen, for example, our “Bold Goal” is to reduce the number of breast cancer deaths in the United States by 50% by 2026. That goal guides our every action.
But the bigger the goal, the greater the challenge and the more resources required to reach it. No one organization can single-handedly make the needed advancements in research, give everyone the timely, quality care they need and create the systemic changes to the health care system necessary to cut breast cancer deaths by any significant amount.
True, we can focus our investments on finding new ways to detect, treat, prevent and cure breast cancer -- especially metastatic breast cancer and the most aggressive forms of the disease. And we can work in our communities to connect people to high-quality care. We can also advocate for increased funding and better patient protections in halls of Congress and in state legislatures across the country. And yes, we’re doing all of these things. But we’ll get there faster by collaborating with partners and leveraging resources at every level to maximize our impact for lasting change.
Here are three situations where such collaboration with partners is essential to reaching your big goal:
• Public Policy Advocacy: Movement on any public policy issue, whether it is a change to a regulation or funding for a program, requires a significant push by organizations working together. Policy makers are much more likely to hear you if you are singing with a chorus behind you. For example, as a member of One Voice Against Cancer, Komen and our fellow cancer organizations can use our collective strengths to increase federal funding for cancer research and other initiatives.
• Providing Focus And Leveraging Resources: While large partnerships are good at driving general funding for cancer research, it is often important to have partnerships with other nonprofits, particularly patient advocacy organizations that are focused on providing leadership to address a specific challenge. A good example of this is the Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance, where we work together with other leading organizations to improve the lives of those living with metastatic breast cancer and prioritize the need for MBC research, identifying gaps and reducing duplication of effort.
• Systemic Change: Addressing the myriad of needs within a local community requires all local stakeholders, from other nonprofits to health care providers, partnering together to address how our fractured system creates gaps in access and barriers to receiving timely, quality care. Working together, we can provide services that fill those gaps in access to care. It takes a village, and we all have a role to play in caring for our communities.
The Trick Is Finding Partners
How do organizations, especially smaller or community-based ones, go about finding partners? Large, established nonprofits have the advantage of greater visibility, and organizations actively seek them out for partnerships.
Smaller nonprofits may have to do a little more legwork up front, but it pays off in the end.
They must find like-minded partners by networking, attending forums and conferences and participating in panels, councils and committees -- working whatever circles are dictated by their mission and goals.
Most importantly, ensure your mission and goals are aligned. That doesn’t mean they have to be identical, but they must be compatible and synergistic.
Not All Partners Are Created Equal
Once you’ve found potential partners, how do you identify those who are a good match for you and your goals?
First, make sure you are both able and willing to speak with one voice when needed. The key is finding organizations and people who are willing to (in a defined space, project, etc.) stop competing and start collaborating. Second, learn about each other’s strengths and leverage those in the partnership. Each organization gives and gets a little.
The key ingredient, however, is to establish trust with your partner. That includes knowing that you both are able to put mission above self to reach the common goal. Such trust takes time and means first building a relationship with that organization, sometimes before you even agree to partner.
Putting Mission Before Self
Forming partnerships can be a little scary when we're all competing for the same donor dollars. Identifying and cultivating workable partnerships isn’t always easy, but it is essential for nonprofits with limited resources. When you align yourself with partners with the same goals, build trust, speak with one voice and collaborate to put mission before self, that’s when you can affect true change.
Author: Paula Schneider