What Is Partnership Development?

April 16, 2023 6 minute read

Human chain showing strength of partnership development.

As companies and organizations embark on commitments and initiatives to address sustainability, ESG, UNSDGs, and wicked problems like biodiversity loss, and climate change, it becomes more and more obvious there are some problems you simply cannot solve alone.  And that's where partnerships come in. 

Partnerships allow two or more organizations to combine their strengths, resources, perspective, knowledge, networks, and reach to solve a shared challenge or seize a new opportunity effectively. 

There are many ways to partner. In our nearly two decades as an implementer in global development initiatives, and in our growing work with private sector companies, it is increasingly more obvious we need collaboration to solve our most pressing global challenges. This is true across every sector.


Indeed, nearly nine in ten executives surveyed by Harvard Business Review agree that partnership development, whether internally as cross-functional collaboration, or external with partners, is essential to keep up with changing business models in times of unpredictable, breakpoint change.

At Resonance, we focus on partnerships for sustainable impact. We help companies build pre-competitive and cross-sector partnerships to advance sustainable supply chains, achieve impact targets, and unlock new markets. And through this work, we know that process is key. In other words, HOW you go about approaching strategic partnership development and managing new collaboration can have tremendous implications for deliverables, outcomes, and ultimate impact.

Let's tend to some critical definitions as part of outlining the partnership development process and its five stages. 

What Is Partnership Development? 

Partnership development is the process of identifying, vetting, launching, and managing a mutually beneficial partnership between two or more organizations.

As organizations set their sights on building more ethical supply chains that mirror their corporate sustainability priorities, engaging in strategic partnership development has become a priority. In fact some companies are hiring partnership specialists or partnership managers to design and carry out strategic partnership development, while others are embedding social enterprises directly within their existing supply and value chains (to promote greater Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) across the organization, for example).

When strategic in nature and innovative in design, a comprehensive and dynamic partnership process can help organizations achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. We have found a planned and phased approach is needed for partnerships to build the necessary foundation in order for subsequent stages to flourish.

Below, we show you how to succeed across each phase of partnership development–from problem and partner identification–through launch and management of partnership projects.

What Are the Five Stages of Partnership Development?

From initial strategy to scaling impact, here are the five stages of partnership development:

1. Scoping and Partnership Strategy Development

Before you can create a successful partnership, you need to develop a clear strategy. There is a great deal of advice on how to start.

Dr. John Bryson,  McKnight Presidential Professor Emeritus at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota was a prolific researcher and author on partnership development. Much of his work focused on strategic partnership development and planning across sectors. The value of his books and articles remains today the emphasis on practitioner insights and what is critical in the design of a partnership process. 

A well-established partnership strategy defines the problem you seek to solve, lays the groundwork for internal buy-in and commitment, and maps your team’s key assets and gaps. 

Central to strategic partnership development, notes Bryson, is to first ensure there is a clear advantage to be gained by collaborating. This means making sure collaborators can gain something significant together that they could not achieve alone. 

He also notes how critical it is to start as much as possible with the ends in mind, and designing the partnership process, structures, and interactions in such a way that outcomes are far more likely to be achieved. 

Although there may be many organizational-specific outputs at this stage, the most foundational for successful partnership development in this beginning partnership strategy phase include:

  • Partnership problem statement 
  • Map of core organizational goals and KPIs for key teams, relevant to the partnership problem statement
  • List of target markets and geographies for partnership 
  • Map of organizational assets and gaps for partnership
  • An established process of Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning (MEL)

2. Partnership Opportunity Mapping

Developing a successful partnership with multiple stakeholders is an emergent process that requires effort, resources, and time (collaboration does not happen overnight).

In many instances, partnerships based on pre-existing relationships can be successful, particularly when needs are immediate. With existing partners, there is already an established level of trust and familiarty that can aid in resolving conflicts when they arise and sustaining the partnership long-term.

However, sometimes the nature of the problem itself, specific needs, and identified gaps from the first strategy phase in the partnership process conclude a new or expanded partnership is necessary. 

There are a vast number of potential partners out there–and most of them are probably unknown to you. It is important that the right partners are chosen. As Resonance co-founder Steve Schmida writes in his recent book, Partner with a Purpose, it may be beneficial to seek out a handful of experts who can describe the type of organizations that are impacted by the problem you have delineated and may already be working to solve it. His advice? "Go broad rather than deep." 

This means looking at an array of organizations - other companies, nonprofits, NGOs, government agencies, foundations, civic groups, academic and research organizations, activist organizations, religious and community groups. He additionally details potential partners by type, as well as pros and cons characteristically of each.  

Broad criteria to consider when seeking partners include not only expertise, but availability of compatible and complementary resources, commitment to outcomes, even if goals for participation differ, reputation among targeted stakeholders, and compatible interests, among others. 

By tapping into local and global networks and using tools like systems thinking, you stand a better chance of connecting with organizations that have the motivation and capabilities to partner effectively. 

Key outputs for partnership opportunity mapping include:

  • Partner landscape assessment
  • Prioritized list of partnership concepts and potential partners
Wicked Problems (22)

3. Partnership Design and Facilitation 

A true strategic partnership is shared from the ground up. That means working together to co-design a partnership business model that leverages each partner’s interests and strengths to effectively achieve shared goals.

An experienced third-party moderator can help set the stage for success, by helping partners build trust, retain focus, and address organizational or personnel conflicts before they become deal-breakers.

This is an ideal phase in strategic partnership development where partners examine and adopt a Theory of Change (TOC) that will, like a compass, guide partners through the change process together, as well as in their own organizations.

According to the Center for Theory of Change,

"TOC is essentially a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context. It is focused in particular on mapping out or “filling in” what has been described as the “missing middle” between what a program or change initiative does (its activities or interventions) and how these lead to desired goals being achieved. It does this by first identifying the desired long-term goals and then works back from these to identify all the conditions (outcomes) that must be in place (and how these related to one another causally) for the goals to occur. These are all mapped out in an Outcomes Framework.” 

Not only is partnership development shared from the ground up, some advise in this phase a process of "working backwards." Borrowing from TOC, a backwards mapping process structures planning and design by initially identifying SEE conditions (social, economic, and environmental) the partnership intends to create.

Then through deliberate questioning and healthy debate, backwards mapping provides opportunities for partners to jointly define expectations, assumptions, and features of the partnership development and change processes that are important for goal and outcome attainment. 

 Key outputs for the partnership design and facilitation phase include:

  • Co-creation process or workshop
  • Partnership concept paper (with key goals, activities, and roles and responsibilities)
  • Signed partnership agreement

4. Adaptive Management and Implementation

Partners can put out a well-written press release announcing their new partnership–but still come up short when it’s time to actually do the work. It’s crucial to think through partnership roles and responsibilities and match tasks to timelines. 

In 2020, the United Nations published The SDG Partnership Guidebook, a practical guide to building high impact multi-stakeholder partnerships for the Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs). It describes this phase as a critical one the stage in which the "rubber meets the road," which is often when partnership failure occurs if not ideally managed. 

Partners should understand at the onset that partnering is rarely smooth sailing and gales are likely. Implementation challenges become evident at this stage and management can be difficult. Progress on partnership goals may be slow, frustration may ensue due to organizational cultural differences, and there may be internal pushback and even disengagement by one or more partners. 

However, this is considered normal, and with a strong process in place for communication that provides trust, transparency, and equity among partners to raise and address issues can be a healthy juncture in partnership development.  

Partners should communicate often, report on progress regularly, empower key team members, be mindful of mutual benefits for all partners, and prioritize strong, adaptive partnership management.

Key outputs for the partnership implementation phase include:

  • Collaborative annual (or quarterly) partnership activity plans
  • Impact monitoring metrics and plan
  • Communications and reporting plan

5. Scaling and Sustaining Impact

From the very start, you should be thinking about what comes next for partnership sustainability and scale. This can look quite different depending on what your partnership set out to achieve. But the key question is: What would it take to grow our impact and make it last?

There are a number of key factors that should be considered at this phase if continuation of efforts is a shared goal. Partners must assess capacity long-term for ongoing support and participation, the extent of organizational leadership and buy-in, whether through learning there are adjustments that should be made, or even pivots that take the partnership in a new direction, and whether new goals and outcomes must be defined.  

Key outputs include:

  • Partnership sustainability plan
  • Map of pathways to scale, and corresponding action plan

Leveraging Partnership Development to Solve Shared Problems

One of the dominant themes emerging from COP27 held in Egypt in November 2022 was the admittance that our global challenges are complex, the need for solutions is immediate, and no one organization can solve them alone. 

Collaboration with other businesses, foundations, NGOs, and donors will be essential to addressing 21st-century business problems like climate change, sustainable development goals, biodiversity commitments, and significant supply chain disruption. By taking the time and resources to develop a strategy and a comprehensive partnership process, stakeholders stand a better chance of partnering with impact. 

To guide them on their way, cross-sector changemakers should consult with experienced partnership development experts to learn how they can leverage collaboration to solve pressing problems and create sustainable impact.

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated for accuracy and current best practices.

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If you are a corporate leader and would like to be a part of a discussion about these and other issues in the presidential transition, contact Resonance Strategic Partnerships Manager, Seth Olson.