Companies and global development organizations launch partnerships for many reasons, and not all of them are good ones. While you might easily whip up a spreadsheet full of different partnership opportunities or ideas, it can be difficult to prioritize the partnerships that are best suited to your particular organization, opportunities, and constraints.
Cross-sector collaboration works best when it yields more than the sum of its parts. Partnerships should address specific partner pain points, combining resources and filling gaps to catalyze impact. Their promised results—for each partner—need to outweigh their costs. And they should be built on a foundation that’s solid enough to weather bumps in the road.
So, as you consider partnering to solve your business or development challenge, we’re sharing a quick checklist you can use to assess the strengths and weaknesses of potential partnerships and prioritize the best opportunities. By remembering these key tenets, you’re well on your way to launching a transformative collaboration.
9 Criteria to Determine Whether You Pursue a Partnership, or Not
A checklist you can refer to in order to assess if a partnership should, or should not, be pursued.
1. The Partnership is Relevant to My Core Challenges or Goals
Always start with the problem you’re trying to solve. To what extent does this partnership idea align with this problem and offer a promising vision for solving it? Some partnership ideas will touch on your organizational challenges and objectives in tangential ways, or they may focus on lower-priority issues. While these could be interesting opportunities, they are less likely to be able—in the long run—to rally the commitment and resources you’ll need internally to see the partnership through.
2. The Partnership has Good Chances of Success
Let’s say the partnership is very relevant to your core challenge. Now ask: Is this partnership idea a moonshot or can we expect—with reasonable certainty—that we’ll be successful if we start down this path?
This question should be part of a critical exercise that follows an in-depth exploration of the challenge in-depth (including landscape assessment and contextual influences). Partners should articulate at this stage a shared vision of success and assess the feasibility of that vision, including a thorough understanding of combined partner commitment and resources dedicated to carrying out partnership activities. Although predictions are never certain, there are sound approaches to assessing feasibility before embarking on the partnership journey.
3. A Successful Outcome Will Move the Needle in Solving My Problem
Next question: The partnership might be very relevant, and its likelihood of success might be high. But is that success a significant step forward in solving your problem?
Partnership results need to justify not only direct costs, but also investment of time and resources (and people), as well as potential lost opportunity costs. Sometimes, establishing a partnership is an incremental step (needle movement) toward a long-term solution, and is thus a successful outcome. However, sometimes what partnerships expect in the way of outcomes won’t make a realistic dent in a complex challenge. Organizations need to be honest about both motivations and realistic expectations.
4. The Partnership Offers an Efficient Way to Address My Problem
All partnerships take time and effort. That said, a partnership should be offering efficiency gains, letting you solve your problem better, more ambitiously, and with fewer resources than you could on your own. Successful partnerships can provide knowledge and optimize resources where there is a gap, foster operational agility, and provide additional structure, support, and capacity, that can lead to greater efficiency down the road to address long-term challenges and initiatives.
5. There is Long-Term Potential for Sustainability and Scale
Some problems can be solved quickly, but, often, the true success of a partnership is whether it can create results that last. For each partnership idea, consider whether there is a viable and likely pathway for sustainability and scale. Is there a built-in partnership business model, for example, that could help you solve the problem in a lasting, self-replicating way? Are there one or more partners who might take on the solution for continued evolution and scale?
For example, we helped facilitate a partnership between USAID, Vodafone, and local insurance companies in Ghana, to innovate an affordable microinsurance and savings product for artisanal fisherfolk. When the USAID project ended, the local companies fully owned the solution, continuing to iterate the product offering for scale to other smallholder sectors in Ghana.
6. The Idea is Innovative or Game-Changing in Some Way
Partnerships are most valuable when they let you tackle something you wouldn’t or couldn’t venture alone. Allow the relationship to open up new ways of approaching the problem. Give extra points to those partnership ideas that aim to do something different—and hopefully better—than what has already been done.
Note that innovation can also mean a willingness to do things differently internally. Teams should be open to new ways of working together and with external collaborators. For example, Resonance supports a number of pre-competitive partnerships between partners who seek to address persistent industry challenges. In Pakistan, we’re working with SAI Platform member partners on pre-competitive collaboration to advance sustainable agriculture in overlapping company supply chains.
7. The Partnership Brings Real Value to My Partner
You know you want any future partnership to meet your objectives. But it is also absolutely in your self-interest that any partnerships you pursue deliver core value to your partners as well. If your partners are not sufficiently motivated, you risk investing in a weak engagement that will fizzle at the first setback.
The partnership idea should solve a key challenge for your potential partner(s) or unlock a substantive opportunity. If a partnership isn’t generating a return on investment—whether financial, impact-driven, or otherwise—that organization’s participation will inevitably wane.
8. We Have the Capacity to Execute
A partnership idea might be excellent, but if your team doesn’t have the staff time or resources to deliver on your expected roles, you’ll likely want to think again. For every partnership idea on your list, consider what roles your own organization will most likely need to play and weigh this against the level of investment, capacity, and internal buy-in you can expect. The first step in successful collaboration is being clear-eyed about what your own team can—and will—deliver. (That said, many teams benefit from engaging a third-party partnership builder, to help navigate, champion, and manage the partnership.)
9. The Timeline for Impact Is Compatible with Our Needs
Different partnerships yield impact on different timelines. Some are geared toward achieving near-term fixes, with fast results. Others strive toward long-term goals that may take years to realize. In assessing your partnership ideas, it’s important to be honest about your own organization’s expectations and time constraints. International donors like USAID, for example, usually operate in multi-year project cycles, while corporate partners can face pressure to show quarterly results. For partnerships that look to seed future impact, consider whether you could build in quick wins or interim milestones.
A Systematic Approach to Prioritizing Your Cross-Sector Partnership Ideas
In his book, Parter with Purpose: Solving 21st Century Business Problems Through Cross-Sector Collaboration, Resonance CIO Steve Schmida describes the sometimes lengthy period after which an organization has identified and engaged with potential partners when interests appear strong, and partners are exuding enthusiasm. This "Valley of Death," as Schmida notes (borrowing from a similar phase in the world of start-ups) is the often arduous journey from initial partnership exploration to commitment and partnership agreement.
Although this can be a phase when many promising partnerships can lose momentum (and die); it can also be a phase of necessary and dedicated discernment and assessment during which organizations can make hopefully informed decisions on whether to move forward on a partnership and to improve its chances of success.
At Resonance, we guide teams through every stage of cross-sector partnership development, including this phase. And we’re emphatic about winnowing down great partnership ideas to the ones that are most actionable, practical, and strategic. After all, partners have limited bandwidth and great partnerships take time.
Not all partnerships are created equal. By taking a systematic approach to prioritizing your partnership ideas, you can help your organization focus on collaboration for maximum impact. The list above will let you pursue partnerships that’ll have the greatest chance at creating effective, lasting solutions to your toughest challenges.
And, when in doubt, companies and global development organizations can consult an experienced third-party partnership builder to help them uncover and implement strategic, shared-value partnerships that can advance their impact goals.
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated for accuracy and current best practices.