Alliances and Partners

by Floyd Rumohr
A partner can help meet strategic goals and advance a nonprofit mission in ways that are not possible when going it alone.

A strategic partner is any person or group that can help meet strategic goals. If your after-school literacy program aims to help 1,000 more students read above grade level within the next twenty-four months, then reading teachers, parents, book publishers, and PBS are examples of possible partners.

Partnerships exist along a continuum from collaboration to group structures and finally merger:

Collaboration → strategic partnerships → joint programming →  administrative consolidation → mergers/acquisitions

Less integration of administration and programs is required along the left and more along the right of the spectrum. The left side is more like dating. The right is like marriage. A strategic partner on this continuum, then, is one that will help achieve a particular goal without having to…get hitched! LaPiana Consulting, a national firm with expertise in strategic restructuring, is a great resource to learn about the different types of alliances and integrations.

The partnership between Stages of Learning, where I was founding executive director for fifteen years, and Queens Theatre in the Park (now Queens Theatre) is a case study along the above continuum:

Fiscal Year Children Served Expenses Cost Per Child
Threat indicators escalate → FY06 1,680 $682,433 $406
Possible strategic partners sought → FY07 2,072 $763,465 $368
Collaboration began → FY08 1,488 $525,299 $353
Administrative consolidation → FY09 2,800 $412,547 $147
Dissolution of Stages of Learning → FY10 2,968 $371,651 $125

The partnership dramatically reduced costs by 70% between FY07 and FY10 without affecting program quality according to the organization’s internal evaluations. The recession earned its “greatness” during the partnership, however, as nonprofits around the country began to feel the effects. Queens Theatre, struggling with challenges unrelated to the acquisition of Stages of Learning, no longer had the capability to sustain an education program and the Stages of Learning board chose to separate and dissolve the organization. We believed that the environment could no longer support the quality services for which Stages of Learning had become known.

Despite the dissolution of an organization that I loved and built, the goals of reaching more students while lowering administrative costs were ultimately achieved because of the partnership.

Stages of Learning is not an isolated case. Thomas A. McLaughlin, founder of Massachusetts-based McLaughlin and Associates, has said that now is the single most intense time in mergers and alliances among charities — a perspective shared by Bob Ottenhoff, outgoing president and CEO of GuideStar in Washington, D.C. who said “We’re on the verge of something happening if the economy doesn’t pick up. We’re going to begin to see…mergers and acquisitions become more prevalent. But it’s on people’s minds like it wasn’t five or ten years ago. The golden age of funding and those days are over” (Hrywna).

Are you going it alone? Maybe it’s time to to look around for friends and collaborators who can advance goals and ultimately the mission of organization(s) with which you work.

Next up: relationship to development and fundraising.

References and recommended reading:

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