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Building Partnerships: A primer

By John A. Toscano, MSW, MBA
President and Chief Executive Officer

In the wide-ranging field of human services, we have a positive bias towards partnering. Our field is replete with many forms of mutual working, i.e. coalitions, consortiums, alliances, networks, information sharing, cooperation, coordination and collaboration.

I believe this emanates from our shared belief that those we serve should become independent when in fact (because we are social beings), what we often mean is they should become more interdependent, i.e. connect and work towards mutual goals with others. It is a logical outgrowth of our beliefs and practices that the very organizations designed to serve others should become more interdependent and not independent/competitive.

Perhaps because we strongly lean in this direction, we are often naïve about the challenges we face when we try to (with a nod to Spike Lee) “do the right thing” and work in partnership.

Commonwealth Autism is a nonprofit organization with an audacious statewide mission of growing the service network and having planned obsolescence as a belief and strategy. This model for organizational behavior requires that we work in partnership with many other entities, both public and private. We have more than 15 years of experience with partnering. This on the ground experience is informed by the literature on this topic as well. Our experience coupled with data from the greater nonprofit and human services community provides us with some wisdom that can be shared with others.

When considering a collaborative partnership, here are some of the advantages, challenges, and risks as well as ways to maximize success.

Some advantages of partnering are:

  1. As social beings, it is in our DNA to aim to work together with our community. We are answering a moral imperative.
  2. Partnering adds value – we increase impact when we leverage strengths of each participant and achieve better outcomes owing to the best thinking of more bright/wise minds.
  3. Greater efficiency – resources saved (time, money).
  4. Attractiveness – funders are more inclined to support partnerships, and in fact, more funders are demanding this approach.

Some challenges of partnering are:

  1. Unrealistic goals.
  2. Unrealistic time frames.
  3. Partnership imbalance (size, maturity/stage of development, resources)
  4. Lack of sufficient buy-in from senior levels of the partners

Some risks to consider when engaging in a partnership are:

  1. Loss of autonomy.
  2. Loss of invested resources if partnership is not successful
  3. Confusion on the part of constituencies.
  4. Lasting conflict if arrangement falters or fails.

The United Way’s Collaboration Learning Project discovered these characteristics of a successful partnership, they are:

  1. Committed Leadership – You need to have commitment at both the executive and the staff levels of both organizations.
  2. Unambiguous Goals – A clear and precise set of realistic and attainable goals are necessary for success in this venture we speak of.
  3. Clearly Defined Roles – The partnership has a specific plan on how best to use the strengths of both organizations to strive towards a set of attainable goals.
  4. Sustainability in the Midst of Change – There must be plans and effort made that creates a collaboration that is not inspired by one staff person but by teams of people.

Some additional suggestions for success:

  1. Craft a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that outlines purpose, goals, objectives, deliverables, and investment of each party.
  2. Regular communication to both build relationships across organizational levels and to measure progress and problem solve is essential.
  3. Compromise – “be the change you want to see”.
  4. Assure a shared stake, i.e. “equal skin in the game”.


  1. Collaboration: What makes It Work – ISBN#09-940069-32-6
  1. Nonprofits and Government: Collaboration and Conflict – ISBN #0-87766-732-2
  1. The Center for Nonprofit Resources
  1. The Foundation Center
  2. Building Successful Collaborations
  3. Wilder Collaboration Factors Inventory

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