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Research & Planning for Social Impact

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Scaling with partners: starting off right

Doing it right boils down to assessing the risks and rewards of your partner before you flip the on-switch.

Recently, a community-based nonprofit asked us for help finding a strategic partner in order to scale their impact.  Our goal was to help them find an organization that would allow their teen internship program to expand into new neighborhoods by the following year. They began not knowing where or how to start looking. Our advice to start was simple.

Begin with your program requirements. Our client required a working relationship with a community center that serves an average of 75 seniors per day in Queens or Brooklyn.  We continued building and fine-tuning a list of requirements with them by focusing on their program’s goals and mission: what impact are you hoping to have? On whom? How? They also knew from prior experience that a partner had to guarantee a critical mass of older adults every day during the summer months when teen interns would be on site. 

How do you start building partner leads? You can start with a Google keyword search to find leads with specific criteria. But if you’re looking to cast a wide net, organizations that receive government support can often be found through government data portals which is where we found a list of hundreds of City-funded programs for Seniors.

Do you need to narrow down by geographic target?  Who are your targets and where are they?  How should they reflect your current program?  Remember, you’re not building from scratch. You’re building from success. So think about what aspects of your program make it work well.  

Talk to your contacts in membership and advocacy organizations. Leverage your networks and professional relationships and talk to those you trust.  Focus on those who already know what you do well. Remember you’re looking for leads with potential; talk to those who are positioned to suggest organizations you may not have thought of but who understand your value.

 Ask your funders for recommendations – do they support the kinds of organizations you are looking to partner with?   This is especially true if your efforts to scale are being supported by one of your funders. Your success is also their success so they have an incentive to help you succeed with a new partner. But be careful not to let their goals and motives override your own. It’s important to maintain fidelity to your program's own goals. 

 So how do you manage difficult conversations about who would make a good partner if your opinion differs from your funder’s or another influential stakeholder?  Create and use a vetting tool. Starting with the requirements list that you began, fine-tune the list and add a scale for scoring how well each prospect meets your criteria; then assign a weight for each criterion to account for its relative importance in the final score. 

How do you narrow the list when it’s very large? Besides validating difficult decisions, a vetting tool can also help you in narrowing a long list of potential partners based on the relative risks and merits of each.  How?  By creating and using a standard vetting tool that’s based on your program requirements and goals to evaluate each prospect’s capacity to add value to your program.  The relative importance of each criterion is also important.  For example, an organization’s operating budget and where their funding comes from maybe two criteria; but budget size may weigh more heavily than the source of funding.  Your assessment criteria should help indicate the organization’s position in terms of their risk or reward as a strategic partner. Evidence should be easy to find. Use the vetting tool to rank each potential organization in terms of their riskiness and reward as a scaling partner.  The evidence you collect through this methodical process should also help you during negotiations with stakeholders.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for our next post soon!