Sometimes it makes sense to partner with a smaller, perhaps much weaker, organization. They may not have all of the criteria of a safe partner, something about them tells you that they’ll make a good partner all the same. Creating a partnership with such an organization has some inherent risks for both of you, but many of these risks can be mitigated by planning and communication ahead of time.
Reasons for partnering with a smaller organization
1. They have passion
Sometimes start-up or floundering agencies come loaded with passion that, if supported with some structure, could make them soar. By partnering with them you can find ways of strengthening them as an institution so that they can live their passion.
2. They have connections
Community-based organizations have precious relationships that your larger organization can’t hope to duplicate. Partnering with such an organization can enable you to work more closely with a community and strengthen one of its core organizations — win-win for everyone.
3. They have experience
Sometimes smaller or floundering agencies have a wealth of local experience that is invaluable for your agency. Perhaps you’re newer in an area, or just foreign enough that you’re often missing important cultural cues. Working with an agency that has experience in the region will be an enormous asset to you, and you can benefit that agency by helping them to bolter their institutional structure.
Risks in working with a smaller organization
1. Weaker accountability systems
Often accountability is one of the first areas of learning for a smaller organization – how to report results and how to account for expenditure of funds in a way that is acceptable for donors. Skills and systems that you simply take for granted, like quarterly reports, may be a entirely new for your potential partner.
2. Political pressure
Some up-and-coming organizations can attract unwanted attention. People may sense an opportunity, and use family, business, or political relationships to personally benefit from the growing organization. If your new partner is based in a culture different from the dominant culture of your agency, then this pressure can easily be missed, and you may find yourself scratching your head over the unexpected behaviour of your selected partner.
3. Muddied vision
Your larger organization represents funding stability and access to donors, both of which can be powerful motivators for any organization, regardless of size. You may find that your partner is willing to take on any type of program, working outside of their real mission and expertise, simply for the privilege of working with you and that funding. In the short-term this may seem like a positive — you’re getting things done that you want — but in the long-term it’s a bad thing as your partner organization de-stabilizes because of its drifting vision.
4. Weaker standards
Okay, this can happen with any potential partner, but it is a bit riskier with a smaller organization. They may not be aware of the standards of humanitarian care that you adhere to, or may not have intentionally put those into practice before.
Forging a healthy partnership
1. Make sure your visions are compatible
Talk with the organization’s representatives about their dreams for the future — for their organization and for their community. If their dreams and yours are similar, then a partnership might work well.
2. Talk about your partner’s health
Share your assessment of the organization, highlighting some of the strengths that are inherent and discussing the weaknesses that have given you some concern. Ask for the organization’s feedback on your assessment. Is it valid? Did you miss something? Do they see it as a weakness, too? Are they willing to address the weakness? Do they want to grow as an organization? If they’re interested in becoming stronger as an organization, then a partnership could be a great opportunity for you both.
3. Talk about capacity building
Discuss how you might go about strengthening the other organization through partnership. Is this concept appealing for them? Would they see your agency as one that would be able to assist their growth? What ideas do they have for strengthening their organization? How could you work on those together?
If they’re interested, then develop a plan for building their capacity. Focus on areas that really matter for organizational health. Plan to start the capacity building before launching the joint project, and to continue it throughout the partnership.
4. Discuss partnership expectations
When you create your partnership agreement, you’ll find yourselves talking about expectations of each other as partners. Make sure that in these conversations, you dig deep to find out what specifically your new partner expects from you. For example, are they expecting you to introduce them to all of your major donors? Are they anticipating that you will sign over any equipment that you use? Unspoken expectations like these can make for some very ugly conversations later on in your relationship.
5. Be fair
Your organization is bigger and you’ll be able to justify taking a larger portion of administration amounts. But be fair. If your partner is doing all of the work, then they should be getting the bulk of that money. They need it to grow and be successful.
With open communication and a bit of planning, working with a smaller organization can be an exciting, learning experience for both of you.
Finding a project partner
Creating a partnership agreement
Partnering with a bigger organization
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