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Strategic Alliances: 8 Questions To Ask

By Cass Wheeler - January 4, 2010

In this current economic environment, you must be asking how you can do more with less. Chances are your financial base is not growing, as you desire, yet the needs of the people you serve don’t decline in a recession. If anything, these needs may increase.

One option you should consider is forming strategic alliances. Are there organizations — other nonprofits, for profits, government — whose mission has some overlap with yours? Might you work together, expend the same or less resources, and yet extend the reach of both organizations?

During the late 1990s, when the American Heart Association adopted a goal to reduce coronary heart disease, stroke and risk by 25 percent by 2010, we knew we couldn’t do it by ourselves. We knew we had to be aggressive about forming partnerships. While the death rate goals were achieved two years ahead of schedule, it simply couldn’t have done it without strategic alliances.

To begin this journey, you’ll need to do your upfront work before jumping in. Here are two critical first steps:

1. Develop a value proposition to guide your partnership strategy. This is a simple, yet important statement that defines what you bring to the table in a partnership and what your organization wants to receive from partner organizations. In other words, what strengths and/or assets do you bring to the relationship? This might be a particular area of knowledge or expertise; it might be brand identification or your volunteer corps. The second part defines how you want the relationship to affect your mission/strategic plan.

2. Think through very carefully the kinds of things you would and would not do in these kinds of relationships and that might vary depending on the type of organization i.e. other nonprofits, for profits, government. This kind of thinking should ultimately lead to adoption of policies and protocols for strategic alliances that will guide your negotiations.

You don’t want to make decisions on an ad hoc basis simply based on the proposal before you. In many instances, these kinds of relationships with for-profits might result in a financial gift to your organization and you don’t ever want to be in a position where it appears that you were just doing it for the money.

Hence, know what you will and will not do upfront and have protocols, decision points, firewalls and authority clearly defined. As you gain experience, these policies will evolve over time.

Once you have completed these steps, you are ready to begin your exploration. As you do, here are some things to consider:

What is the reputation of the other organization?

  • Will a relationship with this organization seem to make sense to the public?
  • Does a joint initiative fit within your strategic priorities?
  • Does it extend your reach?
  • Does there seem to be a cultural fit as well?
  • What are the projected direct and indirect costs?
  • Will both parties bring synergy to the relationship?
  • Is the relationship exclusive and if so, is it worth it?
  • Is the process for joint decision making acceptable and workable?

Once you actually form partnerships, here are some critical success factors:

  • Be candid about what your organization can and cannot deliver.
  • Under promise and then over deliver on the promise.
  • Address potential conflicts of interest upfront.
  • Approach the relationship with an attitude of abundance versus scarcity. When you think there is only so much to go around, you start focusing on the wrong things. Open up and share information, ideas and resources.
  • Do not keep score. Don’t worry about who gets the credit or whether the work is evenly divided. The workload distribution will vary at times but will even out in the end.
  • Maintain continuity of people. People build trust and trust expedites decision-making.

Your partnerships might take many forms, from ad hoc and simple to complex and ongoing. The American Heart Associations relationship with the William Clinton Foundation to fight childhood obesity is an example of a complex and ongoing partnership. However, you might have many that are more or less one-time occurrences. You might create some joint content of materials with another organization. You might form a relationship with a media outlet to call attention to a specific event. You might jointly create guidelines or best practices or jointly advocate for a local city ordinance. The opportunities for alliances are endless. Employ your imagination and then let your skills do the rest

*** Cass Wheeler is the former president and CEO of the American Heart Association. He is now a management consultant based in Georgetown, Texas.***

This article is from NPT Weekly, a publication of The NonProfit Times.

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