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February 27, 2018

Creating Strategic Association Partnerships That Work

Strategic partnerships are one of the most useful tools to help you do more with less and, when done well, they have the power to drive real value to your organization and its members.

Partnerships can be easy to envision, but difficult to execute and maintain operationally. They are often under-resourced and responsibilities for partnership management fall under “other duties as assigned”. This makes it difficult for staff to prioritize the importance of consistently following up and following through with them. Many associations struggle in developing a proactive, strategic approach to partnership development.  Instead, they spend too much time reacting to the most recent organization to reach out with an opportunity. With all this working against us, it not only makes it harder to get partnerships up and running—it also significantly lessens the impact of the ones we already have in our portfolio.

So, as you begin the efforts to achieve your 2018 goals with strategic partnerships, here are a few things to consider.

Why Strategic Partnerships?

Simply put, strategic partnerships allow you to make the most of limited resources by leveraging key assets and engaging with new audiences and platforms to expand influence, opportunities and reach. As budgets get tighter and expectations continue to rise, identifying a few key partnerships can extend your brand or broaden your member offerings.

Strategic partnerships are:

  • Mutually beneficial arrangements between at least two organizations (i.e., non-profit, for-profit or for-benefit).
  • Longer-term, multi-disciplinary efforts that cut across departments.
  • Symbols of specific outcomes that drive your organization toward its strategic goals.

Strategic partnerships are not:

  • One-sided deals that require you to give or get nothing in return.
  • Transactional relationships that only impact small audiences.
  • One-off efforts that do not have lasting value.

In my eight years as a managing director focused on strategic alliances at The American Institute of Architects and now in my role at McKinley Advisors, I’ve seen many organizations struggle with setting up successful strategic partnerships. Too often, emphasis is put on quick wins—a logo at another’s organization’s conference, for example. We fail to account for the deeper engagement and continued reciprocity needed to truly advance the organization’s strategic goals.

Strategic partnerships are more than one-time opportunities. Building a robust, mutually-beneficial strategic partnership opens your organization and its members up to:

  • A larger platform for sharing key messages about your industry.
  • Increased brand exposure for your organization and the partnering organization.
  • New audiences that your organization wishes to reach.
  • Discounted services for your organization and/or its members.
  • Thought leadership platforms such as speaking and writing opportunities for key leaders in your organization.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that strategic partnerships have the capacity to completely transform your organization, creating benefits far beyond anything you could hope to engineer on your own.

But you must do it right.

Creating True Strategic Partnerships

Associations usually have lists of dozens of existing partners, many of which aren’t adding the value that they could if appropriately resourced and positioned for success. Being more selective and intentional about the relationships you develop lowers the risk of creating inequitable relationships and maximizes the chance that you will be able to deliver on the partnership from your end as well.

Filling gaps in existing relationships—whether they revolve around market awareness, audience growth, member benefits or something else—must be a priority to maximize the benefit equally drawn from the partnership. And if a partner isn’t adding value that drives you toward your strategic goals, they might not be the right partner for you at this moment in your history. Since partnerships require a lot of effort, choosing the right partner is key.

Once you have a sense of which organizations would make valuable partners, clearing the road to success becomes critical. This means assigning dedicated staff for planning, project management and more, while getting decision-makers across departments on board with your efforts. A true partnership often requires hard work across your organization and any snag can create a snowball effect resulting in failure of the partnership.

An Example

Recently, I had the pleasure of working with the American Planning Association (APA) to help them build out a detailed plan on strategic partnerships. Despite having already done a great deal of work to define strategic partnerships criteria and conduct early assessments, they were struggling to operationalize the idea and bring it into action. We worked together to develop a process unique to APA that is helping them be more proactive in advancing strategic partnerships. We assessed potential partners, narrowed the list to a handful of key relationships to focus on and discussed potential roadblocks they will encounter in the day to day stewardship of these relationships. Most importantly, their senior team aligned internally and took strategic steps to advance specific, unique programmatic activity in support of both existing partnerships and prospective partnerships.

Of course, APA will continue to engage with many partners on a transactional or diplomatic level. But now they are equipped to dial-up their engagement on behalf of their members with well-thought-out partnerships that advance their organization’s strategic goals.

In Conclusion

Building strategic partnerships is difficult, but by asking the right questions, filling the gaps, getting aligned and taking action, we can drive considerable gains for our organizations, our members and our partners.

For more help building strategic partnerships, reach out to schedule a session with McKinley Advisors—or download our Strategic Partnership Assessment Tool.


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