When is a Partner not a Partner?

In Partnerships by Shelli Bischoff

(This post is part 1 in a month-long series on partnerships)

Many nonprofit organizations and public agencies do their work in partnership with others. Not only are such partnerships seen as critical to achieving mission-related results, but working collaboratively is a core value of many of these organizations.

Working with partners in this way can yield significant benefits. And in our work with such organizations, we’ve learned that taking these partnerships to the next level requires understanding that not all partner relationships are created equal. Specifically, more effective partnerships require the ability to:

  1. Distinguish between different partner segments
  2. Distinguish strategic partners from other levels of partners

Partner Segments

Too often, the term “partner” is used indiscriminately to refer to every single person or entity and organization works with. This approach neglects the reality of the differences between various partner relationships. For example, your “partners” who are contractors have a very different relationship with your organization than do your “partners” who act as advisors, don’t they?

Your relationship with contractors likely focuses on the principles and standard practices of contract management to ensure that you realized the results outlined in the contract. In contrast, your relationship with advisors likely focuses on, well, asking for their advice and insight on specific topics. Those are two really different kinds of relationships!

A solid understanding of what segments your organization’s partnerships fall into helps you to manage each type of relationship most effectively – and most appropriately. It’s easy to imagine what would happen if you treated an advisor like a contractor (you appear ungrateful and they become less likely to offer you their expertise). But guess what, the contractor who is treated too much like an advisor may start to forget that they work for you, miss deadlines, and take liberties beyond their authority.

What Are Your Partner Segments?

A useful exercise we’ve done with many clients is to have staff or board members brainstorm the different partner segments they have and define which partners fall into which segments. This PDF of a partner segmentation exercise is from the handbook for our full-day Partner Relations Training. Use it as an exercise at your next staff or board meeting.
Some discussion questions we like include:

  • Do we have any partners who fall into more than one segment? What does that tell us about those partners?
  • Where do we manage partner relationships appropriately (i.e., appropriate for the segment)?
  • Where could we improve?
  • How does looking at our partners by segment affect how you think about partner relationships?
  • What should we start doing differently (more of this, less of that) in relation to our partner segments?

(Note: not all the segments apply to every organization, and you may find that you need to add a segment to customize the tool for your group)

What’s Next?

A deliberate approach to partner relationship management starts with understanding your partner segments and aligning your relationship management strategies accordingly. Doing so will increase your internal efficiency and improve partnership outcomes.

In next week’s post, we’ll discuss levels of partnership in general and strategic-level partnerships in particular. In the meantime, try the partner segmentation exercise at your next meeting and let us know what happened.