Good & Bad Marriages: Philanthropic Partnerships

By Steve Seleznow, Ana Tilton, Ingrid Ellerbe & Tom Vander Ark

Local philanthropic partnerships can leverage resources to attack big problems but they are challenging to create. Between us, we’ve created hundreds of local and initiative-based funding alliances, so we’ve seen our share of good and bad marriages. 

We turned to Greg Butler, a former Microsoft executive who heads an international partnership association, and he gave us a dictionary definition of partnerships: ongoing working relationship where risks and benefits are shared.  He added that in practical terms this implies that each partner is equally involved in co-creating the partnership’s activities, bringing contributions (of different kinds) to the partnership, and committing to mutual accountability.

Ten tips on forming good marriages. We compared notes and identified ten attributes of productive philanthropic partnerships:

  1. Interest-based conversations are held up front;
  2. Project viability is assessed up front through site visits, audits, and interviews;
  3. Clear mission and goal alignment around desired impact--most often a replicable, scalable program that positively affects multiple constituents;
  4. Challenges, barriers, and risks are identified;
  5. Clear plans are developed to accomplish goals and mitigate risk;
  6. Ownership and engagement of all partners, funders, supporters and implementers;
  7. Project governance that respects roles and boundaries;
  8. Regular project reports with full transparency;
  9. Flexibility to adjust plans, timelines and resource allocations; and
  10. Celebration of progress and recognition of people contributing to impact. 

“That kind of partnership leverages cage-busting leadership,” said Ingrid Ellerbe, MIND Research Institute. She noted that the ultimate measure of success is expansion and/or replication of the partnership. MIND Research developed a successful Orange County Math Initiative and replicated it in a dozen other metro areas.    

Ana Tilton, Grantmakers for Education, said “Complex problems, like those our members and their partners are working to address, often require them to abandon or compromise single focused agendas in favor of a collective approach.” Like any good marriage, partners must find common ground and do best when they don’t go it alone. When funders collaborate with people and organizations that share their objectives, they are able to leverage individual expertise to do more together than they ever could have done alone. 

The successful cradle to career initiatives in greater Cincinnati and northern Kentucky are a great example of a productive partnership.  Supported by Strive, a subsidiary ofKnowledgeWorks, it is a collective approach of more than 300 organizations to improve student achievement 

Bad Marriages. We’ve all seen partnerships that went south and failed to produce the planned impact or worse--exploded.  Following are a few reasons bad things happen to good people:

  1. It becomes clear that partners have different agendas;
  2. A power imbalance makes the partnership unproductive;
  3. Partners over-promise and continually under-deliver on resources or commitment;
  4. Quality is sacrificed for scale;
  5. Funders do not continually assess inputs and outputs;
  6. Sustainability is not considered with investment strategy;
  7. Lack of buy-in by all parties;
  8. Disconnect between outcomes and expectations;
  9. Lack of transparency on expenditures, activities and/or outputs;
  10. Leadership changes derail partnership plans.

There's an inherent value when each stakeholder invests. There's a sense of ownership to affect change versus something being handed to you. Ellerbe said, “There seems to be better outcomes when our schools have ‘skin in the game’ meaning they match or partially match funding.  Our history shows that when we don’t have that there’s a 50/50 chance of achieving the goal.” 

Tilton said, “The kind of change our members and their partners are dedicated to producing doesn’t happen overnight. Short-term initiatives that promise fast returns are enticing, but they are likely to result in a bad marriage that leaves one or both partners feeling unfulfilled. Making real change and real progress requires a long-term sustained commitment through all of the ups and downs any good partnership brings with it.” 

Requirements. The Foundation Strategy Group has identified five conditions that produce alignment and lead to powerful results: a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support organizations. 

Under the umbrella of mutually reinforcing activities, partnerships often thrive when there are clear objectives and measures coupled with autonomy on how to get there. Just as critical a requirement – under the umbrella of continuous communication – is building trust between partners as well as ensuring a common motivation from the start. 

The Partnership Brokers Association, chaired by Butler, has identified partnership brokering skillsincluding negotiating, facilitating, synthesizing, communicating, institution building, and revising.   

Strong partnerships, according to Butler, thrive on equity, transparency, and mutual benefit. When designed around these principles there is respect for the added value each party brings, trust sufficient to support risk taking, and engagement likely to sustain the work over time. 

Developing good partnerships requires a significant investment of time and an ongoing investment in managing the partnership agenda, communicating with partners and stakeholders, and adapting to changing circumstances. 

Contingencies.  Partnerships are becoming more and more structured these days and for good reason. As referenced above, long-term projects hold the greatest promise for the kind of sustained social impact partnerships are formed to create. Structures for everything from reporting results, to regular communication, to how decisions get made are critical to ensuring that progress can continue even in the midst of change. Changes like staff turnover, new evidence to consider and incorporate, and additional need can be minimized when you have the right structures in place. 

“Leadership changes on both side of the equations are a big one for us—funder and implementer,” said Ellerbe, “It’s imperative to quickly access the new instructional leader when there’s turnover  in order to reengage the major stakeholder responsible for implementing the solution.” 

It’s a good idea to include a pause clause in the partnership agreement so that in the event of a significant implementation leadership change, funders have the chance to reassess the situation.   

For more. To continue the conversation, vote for our SXSW panel--Good & Bad Marriages: Philanthropic Partnerships--on the panel picker

The Partnership Brokers Association website provides a wealth of information about partnership brokering. The Partnering Initiative website provides even more information around cross-sector and multi-stakeholder partnerships for development. 

Steve Seleznow is President & CEO at Arizona Community Foundation. Ana Tilton is Executive Director at Grantmakers for Education. Tom Vander Ark is CEO of Getting Smart, follow him @TVanderArk.

This post first appeared on Education Week.


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