Wisconsin Historical Society

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How to Manage the Challenges of Partner Relationships

Partnerships for Historic Preservation Advocacy, Part 2 of 2

How to Manage Advocacy Partnership Challenges | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

This is Part 2 of a 2-part series on developing and managing partnerships for historic preservation advocacy. Part 1 offers suggestions on How to Develop and Manage Partner Relationships.

A partnership can help your historic preservation advocacy group accomplish more than it could alone, however, managing the partner relationship can present some unique challenges. By preparing in advance, your group can avoid common pitfalls that sour a potentially rewarding partnership. If your group does not at least attempt to partner with other groups, you may leave significant grassroots resources on the table.

Some of the challenges your advocacy group might face in a partner relationship are discussed below. The discussion points (PDF, 88 pages, 250 KB) were presented by leaders in the areas of nonprofit and corporate partnerships.

  1. Challenge #1: If your group enters into a partnership, how will you determine which group will lead and take responsibility if something goes wrong?

    The most important factor in having a successful partnership is choosing the right partner. Before you reach out to a potential partner (or entertain a partnership offer that comes to you), do your homework. Clearly understand your potential partner's mission and resources. The potential partner should have the time and motivation to build a partnership. Also consider your partner's other partners, past and present. Do these affiliates also share your general mission and values? Could an indirect alliance with any of these groups work against your goals?

    For each of your potential partners, develop a purpose and fit statement. Drafting this statement will help you understand how your missions and vision overlap and whether your operations are compatible (or not). If a potential partner group is much larger than yours, consider how your different levels of resources might affect the partnership.

    As you are working toward a partnership with one or more other groups, consider drafting a written agreement that lays out the goals, expectations, and responsibilities of everyone involved. This is sometimes called a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), and it could be legally binding. Before you finalize your MOU, have it reviewed by legal counsel. An MOU is especially useful when more than two parties are involved in a partnership. If, for instance, something goes terribly wrong and one group's insurance is in question, you should all know in advance whose carrier will be paying. MOUs are most important when a nonprofit organization partners with a for-profit entity (see challenge #7 below). If your group is incorporated as a 501c3 nonprofit organization, you should consider risks to your tax-exempt status throughout any partnership discussion. Your 990 tax form (PDF, 99 pages, 250 KB) will ask about your organization's policies for protecting your tax-exempt status in your group's joint venture.

    To ensure your partnership is working, take time to evaluate the relationship as it develops. Assess the effectiveness of your meetings, their frequency, and how they might be improved.

  2. Challenge #2: If your group partners with other groups on your most important projects, how can you make certain that your group's message is heard among the flood of messages?

    In a public meeting, a single group with a singular message that does not complement or support the messages and objectives of others will sound off-key. But a well-coordinated message will not only maintain your group's distinct voice, it will strengthen it. You will demonstrate that your group is part of a collaborative network of citizens who care about where they live and the quality of life in their community. It is much easier to ignore a single voice than a chorus of voices.

  3. Challenge #3: If your group already has some strong personalities, why would you add more strong personalities by partnering with another group?

    Most successful partnerships are built on strong interpersonal relationships between organizations and their communities. The ability to work well with others requires strong leadership skills, a clear vision, and flexibility. These traits support the best organizational management, whether or not your group is partnering. Therefore, partnership building will be a great test of your board's ability to demonstrate leadership and management skills. Board members often sit on multiple boards, creating a natural synergy between groups.

  4. Challenge #4: If your group joins a coalition, how will a potential sponsor understand your group's unique worth? Will you dilute the pool of preservation funding by sharing credit with other groups?

    More and more often, foundations are looking for collaborations between groups over single-organization efforts. When a discrete amount of money is at stake, funders will sometimes force a partnership. A forced partnership comes with its own ups and downs, and when the funding ends, forced partnerships can quickly dissolve. By carefully choosing a partner or partners, your group may increase its chances of being rewarded by funders, avoid a forced partnership, and accomplish your project with the least amount of strife. When the project is completed, you will have a reliable collaboration to count on for the next project.

  5. Challenge #5: If your group doesn't have time for its own activities, how can it commit to collaborating with another group?

    Before you consider creating a partnership with another group, your board should assess your group's capacity to collaborate with others. A strong strategic planning exercise should help your group understand whether or not a partnership could help you accomplish your goals. This exercise will also identify what your group has to offer, including your assets and capabilities. Effective partnerships follow clear objectives that align with your vision, mission, and strategic goals. Your group should clearly identify what you are trying to accomplish through the partnership that you cannot achieve on your own.

    Your board should consider whether it has time to manage the relationship, either with staff time or board time. The people who are responsible for managing the relationship need to provide regular relationship updates to all stakeholders. Those who have the time and interest must also have the interpersonal skills to maximize the relationship. If possible, a potential relationship manager should spend face time with the partner (not just through email or some other remote communication tool). Anyone in your group who has an existing relationship with a potential partner is usually the most likely to withstand any potential conflicts.

    You should also evaluate your relationships with your group's existing alliances and partners. You may not realize you already have partnerships that are working, especially if these groups are natural partners — like another preservation group, a historical society, or a landmarks commission — with a common goal and vision. Businesses that have sponsored your past events or programs are also potential partners. Past and current sponsors are relatively easy to solicit and may be open to collaboration beyond simply writing checks.

    If your group decides to actively seek partners outside of your existing base of allies, think about how these potential partners might fit in with your imagined partnership model. Partners are all different. Design a unique marketing approach for each potential partner. A "one size fits all" approach won't work.

  6. Challenge #6: What will your group do if your members disagree with some of the things your partners are doing?

    A potential partnership may open up a conversation with your membership. During this conversation, your members will have the chance to voice their concerns about the potential partnership and how it may affect your group. This conversation should ultimately help to clarify your group's plans, mission, and vision. This conversation may also inspire your members to suggest other potential partners.

  7. Challenge #7: If your group partners with a for-profit entity (like a business), how will you avoid compromising your group's mission?

    Alliances between nonprofit and for-profit partners are becoming more and more common. Philanthropy is changing from the old-school model of benevolent donor/grateful recipient to a working relationship that generates benefits for all involved. Nonprofit alliances with businesses can provide organizations with a variety of resources, including technology support, high-quality equipment, in-house professional printing services, web design, legal expertise, and a broad pool of potential volunteers. Businesses benefit through their public association with nonprofit organizations whose work reflects their own mission and goals and their brand in the community.

    Your partnerships with businesses, as with all of your partnerships, will rely on trust in your personal relationships. Everyone engaged in the business/nonprofit alliance must feel connected to the purpose and people involved. Your senior leaders and staff must feel connected to the goals and value of the partnership. Like nonprofit-to-nonprofit alliances, the purpose of the partnership needs to be clear. All parties must understand the nature of the relationship, whether the partnership is purely philanthropic or one in which the groups' staff and leadership work together toward a common goal.

    Both partners should have a strong grasp of the relative importance of the partnership to each partner. They should also understand what the other partner does and its mission. No one involved in the partnership should question why the two partners are working together. The benefits should be clear to everyone, including resources and social value.

    Your relationships with for-profit entities will also require a greater degree of formality to protect the quality of the relationship and your nonprofit status. Too often, nonprofit organizations are so grateful for the help they get from businesses that they overlook important issues. You should judge any partner by the same rules you use to evaluate a staff member. Both partners should write purpose statements for the collaboration. The key to maintaining your group's tax-exempt status is to distinguish between corporate sponsorship and advertising expenses.

    Perhaps even more than in relationships between two nonprofit groups, nonprofit and for-profit partners should be careful to develop a balanced partnership. Neither party should feel that it is giving up more than it is getting. As with all partnerships, you should evaluate the relationship regularly and deal with problems immediately. If things aren't working out, consider breaking up.

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