Executive Vice President Jeanne Mullgrav on Successful Community Partnerships – What Does it Take?


By Jeanne Mullgrav, Executive Vice President of Capalino. To learn how Capalino can help your business or nonprofit build strategic partnerships and succeed in NYC, contact Jeanne at jeanne@nullcapalino.com or 212-616-5832.

While nonprofits and for-profit companies typically operate in separate spheres, public-private partnerships have become an increasingly common way to address local community needs. The results of partnerships between private companies and nonprofit organizations can be powerful – combining the strengths of both sectors to create real and lasting impact. However, making (and maintaining) these relationships requires careful planning – and a commitment to understanding and respecting the differences between sectors.

Why Community Partnerships?

Done well, community partnerships are a win-win-win. Community members get needed investments in infrastructure, education, health, or other local needs. Nonprofits get additional resources to fulfill their mission. And private companies improve their brand and boost employee morale and engagement through a culture of giving back. The best examples of these partnerships, no matter the size or scale, feature strong alignment of mission, which ensures authenticity.

Consider, for example, the men’s fashion start up Twillory, which partnered with Career Gear, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting low-income men with job attainment, including interview clothing.

Or Microsoft’s YouthSpark initiative, which creates opportunities for young people worldwide to learn computer science. These initiatives are successful and sustainable because they are tied to what these companies do best.

But it is not enough for organizations to be mission-aligned. For every successful partnership, we have seen many more that fail to produce the expected outcomes. There are numerous reasons this can happen, but it generally boils down to a lack of understanding of the differences between the nonprofit and for-profit sector, or between the individual cultures of the organizations involved.

In order to avoid some of the common pitfalls to successful partnerships, here are a few things to remember at every stage of a new partnership.

1. Make Sure it’s a Match

The first step is ensuring you have the right partner. Some things to keep in mind at this stage:

Nonprofits Have a Brand, Too: Much like for-profit organizations, nonprofits also have a brand to preserve. Donors and volunteers are highly sensitive to an organization’s reputation when deciding to give their support, and nonprofit leaders must work hard to maintain their brand, including turning down private support if they feel the reputation of the for-profit partner will hurt their image among donors, clients, government and other funders.

Common Values are Key: Perhaps more than ever, organizations are expected to define a set of values to be followed by employees and the organization as a whole. These values are the foundation of a good partnership, serving as the preliminary basis for collaboration. Organizations do not have to share all of their values, but too many fundamentally opposing values may ruin the prospects for success. To avoid such situations, potential partners should perform a values alignment assessment up front, identifying the complementary set of values each stakeholder can share with and learn from the other.

Expertise Can be Shared Both Ways: While nonprofits and companies often have vastly different goals and approaches to management, different areas of expertise do not imply a lack of expertise.  Both sides have something to bring to the table when it comes to collaboration. Rather than focusing on how the two groups differ, consider how a new skill that one organization brings can complement an existing skill of the other. This reciprocity ensures everyone gets value from the partnership.

Competition Crosses Sectors: “Competition” is a term often associated only with the corporate world. But just as for-profit companies need to constantly find ways to stay competitive in their market, the nonprofit sector is full of competition – competition for funding, clients, publicity, etc. Private partners need to be sensitive to the ways in which their support might actually create limitations for a nonprofit. For example, an alliance may close off opportunities for that nonprofit to partner with your competitors in the future. Imposing too many restrictions on funding may prove damaging, and lead nonprofits to avoid future collaboration. But in the best scenario, a partnership enhances competitiveness on both sides, through positive exposure, employee satisfaction and community support.

2. Make a Plan (But be Flexible)!

While many projects evolve and change over time, it is critically important to set clear goals and expectations at the outset, and anticipate unforeseen circumstances in order to plan for them. Things to consider at this stage:

Set Clear Goals and Outcomes: While it is important to leave enough flexibility to be creative and deal with unexpected or changing circumstances, knowing what you want to accomplish up front will make it much easier to create and execute a plan of action. Additionally, it ensures everyone is on the same page in terms of expectations – what one group might see as a positive outcome might be very different from what another had in mind. Additionally, defining your project and its goals makes other goals, like branding and marketing, easier to accomplish.

Put the Local Community First: It is important to start with the target audience when crafting a community partnership. Consider asking the local community board or other community leaders what their specific needs and goals are. Even if a similar project has been done elsewhere, the needs of the local community will almost always require adjustments. There are no “one size fits all” projects, because every community is unique. Tailoring the project to the community instead of the community to the project will maximize its impact and effectiveness, as well as its reception by community members.

Volunteers Aren’t “Free”: The core of many community-oriented projects is the volunteers who make it possible. It is important to remember, however, that engaging volunteers imposes real costs on a nonprofit. Volunteers require a coordinator who will oversee registration, organize shifts, provide orientation and training sessions, and be responsible for supervision. Additionally, coordinating volunteers often requires someone knowledgeable on governmental restrictions and regulations (such as fingerprinting or other screening procedures). For-profits should remember that while their time is valuable, it also requires significant investment on the other side.

Think Long-Term: Often, the benefits of long-term alliances are significantly greater than those of one-off projects. Short-term commitments often produce hasty results, as the proximity of the end goal discourages stakeholders from producing their best work. Longer-lasting partnerships require more resources, but usually produce greater results. A long-term agreement can ensure that both sides remain fully committed, and creates more opportunities for lasting impact, community and employee satisfaction, and positive media exposure. A one-time grant, for example, is easy to execute but also quickly forgotten. But a long-term commitment to mentoring, training, or other ongoing investment keeps all sides engaged and energized. You may need to start smaller than you’d like, such as a single corporate volunteer day, but having a foot in the door and creating a record of success lays the foundation for enhancing the partnership down the road.

3. Promote, Evaluate, and Celebrate!

Once your partnership is off the ground, it is important to continuously evaluate to ensure your goals are being met, tell your good story to the world, and decide if and when it is the right time to expand.

Promote the Partnership: Publicizing the partnership is a way to encourage other organizations to consider alliances in the future. It also draws attention to the cause at hand, inviting investment from new sources. There are a wide variety of ways to promote these projects – through social media platforms, press releases, annual reports, organizational newsletters and websites, and the like. A successfully publicized partnership will encourage others to use it as a model, in addition to enhancing the partners’ brands.

The Problem with Success: It can be tempting to quickly replicate and expand when a project is very successful, but the partnership may not have the capacity to do so effectively right away. Expansion requires additional time, resources, and capital, and both sides need to have the bandwidth to take on these additional responsibilities. A sudden infusion of funding or interest in a small nonprofit, for example, can overwhelm their infrastructure and technical capabilities. Growth and expansion should be incremental.

The Bottom Line

Collaboration between for-profit and nonprofit organizations is becoming increasingly important in this time of uncertainty around public investment in social causes. We have seen the power of these partnerships and know that success is possible, as long as all sides commit to ongoing investment, planning, communication and mutual respect.

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