< Back to Search

CCF/SCF Tools Partnerships: Frameworks for Working Together

Published: September 14, 2012
Strengthening Communities Fund (SCF), Compassion Capital Fund (CCF)
Guidance, Policies, Procedures, Tools

Partnerships: Frameworks for Working Together



Organizational partnerships can have many benefits.

As pressures on community-based organizations increase and the issues faced by our society become more complex, the idea of cross-organization partnerships can hold much promise. Through partnerships we can contribute our part and also reap the benefits of others’ efforts. We can accelerate learning and distribute skills and knowledge. Also, we can add depth and breadth to our community impact.

In this e-learning lesson you will learn about the typical components found in effective partnerships, the different forms that partnerships can take, the steps to establishing effective partnerships, and how to manage and bring closure to partnerships.

Partners combine their efforts to achieve shared goals.

Organizations seek partnerships to add value through combined efforts. Although organizations may have different structures and approaches, they can work together toward common purposes and achieve shared results.

A partnership is a give-and-take relationship that can strengthen organizations’ capacity for long-term cooperation and collaboration. To achieve the potential benefits of partnership, organizations must be prepared to build, sustain, and evaluate them in a thoughtful way.

1. The Meaning of Partnership


Most successful partnerships contain these key components.

If you’re considering developing a partnership, you should become familiar with what a true partnership entails. There are several key components inherent in most approaches to partnering. Examine your organization and your potential partner’s organization with these components in mind:

  • Leadership

Partnerships imply a shared leadership among respected individuals who are recognized and empowered by their own organizations to build consensus and resolve conflicts. However, one organization will generally take the lead on managing the process. Partners must have trust in each others’ ability to lead effectively and honestly.

  • Common Understanding

Partners need to understand each other’s organizational framework, culture, values, and approach. Partners also need a clear understanding of individual members’ roles, responsibilities, and what the partnership’s division of labor will be.

  • Purpose

Partnerships must be guided by a shared vision and purpose that builds trust and recognizes the value and contribution of all members. Each partner must understand and accept the importance of the agreed-upon goals. This leads to improved coordination of policies, programs, and service delivery. Shared and transparent decision-making processes are also essential as partners work towards their common purpose.

  • Culture and Values

Shared “can-do” values, mutual understanding, and an acceptance of differences (e.g., norms, ways of working) are essential to successful partnerships. Partners need to discuss their organizational cultures to identify how to work with their strengths and weaknesses. When partners respect each other’s contributions and regard each other as equals, they can gain active involvement from organization representatives who will play a valued role in the partnership.

  • Learning and Development

A healthy partnership promotes an atmosphere of learning. This may involve monitoring and evaluation aimed at improving members’ performance. An open mindset and the desire to invest in partners’ skills and knowledge will create opportunities to shape each other’s work and learn together. In this environment, members can reflect honestly on both successes and failures.

  • Communication

If a partnership is going to succeed, there must be effective communication at all levels within the partnership and inside each partner organization. In addition, strong feedback loops should be outlined from the beginning of the relationship so that all stakeholders receive timely information.

  • Performance Management

The appropriate partnership structure, management practices, and resources must be in place to achieve the intended purpose of the partnership. Members must demonstrate both accountability for their actions and ownership for delivering on the objectives and targets for which they are responsible.

There are barriers to achieving effective partnerships.

You should also be aware of common barriers to working effectively with a potential partner. As relationships evolve, partners must work to resolve any road blocks that may arise. Typical barriers include:

  • Limited vision or failure to inspire
  • Lack of clear purpose or inconsistent understanding of purpose
  • Competition between partners for the lead or domination by one partner
  • Unequal and/or unacceptable balance of power and control
  • Lack of support from organizations with decision-making power in the partnership
  • Key stakeholders missing from the partnership
  • Lack of commitment and unwilling participants
  • Differences in philosophies or work styles
  • Inadequate understanding of roles and responsibilities
  • Hidden agendas
  • Failure to communicate
  • Failure to learn
  • Lack of evaluation or monitoring systems
  • Financial and time commitments outweigh potential benefits


2. Types of Partnerships


Partnerships fall into different categories.

Diverse organizations often join forces to achieve shared goals around capacity building and community improvement. Several types of partnerships are described below:

  • Partnerships among community-based nonprofit service organizations
  • Cross-sector partnerships (between nonprofits and the business, government, and/or academic sectors)
  • Partnerships between donor organizations and recipients

When community-based nonprofits join forces, each organization must have the organizational capacity necessary to manage projects, budgets, and staff involvement. In community-based partnerships, decision-making should be inclusive and deeply engage the community itself.

Cross-sector partnerships are fairly simple to initiate but challenging to maintain. Regardless of the goodwill of the participants, two very different organizational cultures must come together to produce results. One key is to find common ground and use shared language that underscores the vision of the partners.

Partnerships between donors and recipients can create confusion. Is the partnership just about receiving money? This type of partnership actually aims to take advantage of what the recipient, as well as the donor, can bring to the relationship. For instance, this might include local expertise, on-site workers, or clarification of priorities and constraints. Donors can’t coerce recipients, for the sake of obtaining resources, into doing things they don’t want to do. Together, both sides must define the terms of the relationship.

 Partnerships can also be classified by their primary characteristics.

This list of partnership types might help you determine what kind of relationship you want to establish.


  •  Collaboration involves great autonomy and no permanent organizational commitments or combined services.

                    Examples: sharing information; coordinating efforts


  • Strategic alliance involves shared or transferred decision-making power.

                Examples: joint programming; administrative consolidation


  • Integration involves changes to organizational structure and control mechanisms.

                Examples: joint ventures ; mergers

  • Funding alliance occurs when organizations come together to share a large grant/donation or create a recipient/donor relationship.


  • Cost-sharing occurs when each organization provides different resources, such as facilities, staff, or equipment.


  • Grant-match occurs when one organization provides a grant and the recipient provides a match in services, cash, maintenance, supplies, or volunteers.

3. Forming Partnerships


 The first step in partnership formation is to define the need for a partnership.

The goal in partnerships is to achieve more than individual organizations can achieve on their own. In other words, the whole of the partnership is greater than the sum of the individual parts.
Identifying self-interest is a critical part of this first step.  In defining the need for a partnership, you should think not only about what the partnership can accomplish as a whole, but also about the concrete benefits to your organization in particular. Each potential partner should answer the following questions and discuss their answers together:

  • What are our short-term interests? What does our organization need to accomplish or gain in the next 12 months to stay engaged in the partnership?
  • What are our long-term interests? What does our organization need to accomplish or gain in the next 18-36 months to stay engaged in the partnership?

Possible answers might include additional organizational members or volunteers; enhanced products or services; greater community credibility or support; and improved access to businesses, agencies, or foundations.

The second step in partnership formation is to start the process.

Partnerships have to be developed and nurtured in ways that respect and recognize all individuals. Building relationships is not just the responsibility of organizational leaders, but of everyone working in the partnership. It’s also important at the initial stages to agree on a set of ground rules for the partnership. This may seem obvious, but very few groups perform this fundamental requirement necessary for valuing and respecting the individual partners.

The stages of developing a partnership can be compared to the stages of team development—forming, storming, norming, and performing. Forming involves bringing people together to start the partnership-building process. It’s important that all members help determine the partnership goals, structure, and processes from the onset. In the next stage, after the group has met several times, people start to question the purpose and direction of the partnership (e.g., “Why am I here?”, “What’s my role?”, “Do we have the right priorities?”). It’s important to work through this storming stage so the group can be open and honest about their perceptions. Norming is the stage in which the partners begin to develop protocols and reach shared agreements. Performing is when the partners are working together smoothly and accomplishing their objectives.

The third step in partnership formation is setting up and maintaining the partnership.

There can often be ambiguity or conflict regarding the division of responsibility between the partnership and individual partners. For instance, it’s often difficult to clearly distinguish between strategic and operational (day-to-day) decision-making. Partners may be reluctant to delegate authority to the partnership. Therefore, the partnership can establish a clearly written legal constitution or contract (sometimes called a “terms of reference”). This document sets out the key objectives, procedures, structure, and outcomes of the partnership. It’s also essential that this document reflect the business plan or strategy that forms the basis of the partnership’s work.

The document gives members an overview of how agreed-upon action will be taken and develops a sense of shared responsibility for the partnership’s achievements and failures. It also gives the partnership some structure and boundaries to work within, while allowing flexibility for change and growth. During the setup stage, partners can also develop a specific work plan and agree on their performance management processes so staff members know what they’re meant to accomplish and how they’re doing.

4. Norms and Communication Structures


Partnership norms can foster healthy work relationships.

Successful partnerships are managed by people who recognize the importance of cultivating healthy working relationships. In a large partnership comprised of many relationships, it’s essential to establish guidelines on how partnership members will work together. Creating and following partnership norms is an effective way to maintain healthy working relationships.

 Although partnerships have “contracts”— formal agreements between organizations that establish the goals, structure, and responsibilities of a partnership relationship—these documents do not establish the “how” of the relationship. Partnership norms are informal guidelines on how partnership members will behave and interact with one another. These four steps will help you implement partnership norms.

Identify the shared values of the group.

In the partnership kickoff meeting, engage your partners in dialogue about establishing norms, often referred to as “ground rules.” Identify the areas in which norms will be necessary. Suggested areas include communication, knowledge management, resource management, decision-making, conflict resolution, and/or meetings.

Take time to listen to each person’s perspective on each topic. Then, as a group, decide on what your shared values and norms will be. Partnership norms must be agreed upon by all members of the group.

Document partnership norms and make them easily accessible.

Based on your shared values, write statements that will serve as guidelines for behavior and how the group will work together. For example, if your partnership places a value on participant attendance at partnership meetings, a suggested norm might read:

  • We will attend all partnership meetings regularly.
  • I will notify members in advance if I must miss a meeting.
  • I will ask another member of the group to debrief me within one week of missing any meetings.

Using “we will” or “I will” statements can help create ownership of the partnership norms. Once your norms are documented, make sure they’re easily accessible to everyone in the group. Consider posting your partnership norms on a shared website or virtual workspace.

Communicate the norms regularly.

By communicating your partnership norms frequently, you emphasize people’s accountability to the group’s shared values. Consider creating laminated cards or fact sheets that can be distributed to members. You might also consider attaching a copy of partnership norms with all meeting notes or posting them in the meeting rooms.

Update the norms as needed.

As your partnership adds or loses members, it’s important to revisit your partnership norms. But even if you maintain the same members throughout the relationship, it’s necessary to review and assess your norms based on the current stage of your partnership. Partnership norms are only effective when all members of the group agree on the shared values.

Use communication structures to facilitate open discussion.

Open, honest communication is a cornerstone of good partnerships. It can be built by creating communication norms and using structures for facilitated discussion. To facilitate discussion is to be intentionally conscious of a framework for use in dialogue. Successful partnerships use consistent communication norms in every interaction and meeting. They engage in open dialogue within established parameters and allow for healthy conflict.

Below are some suggestions for building strong communication.

1.  Hire a consultant to train all staff and partners on facilitation techniques.

2.  Build proficiency in two or more leaders who develop understanding of at least one proven model of communication and commit to using that model. Each of the following books contains a practical communication framework:

  • Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time, Susan Scott
  • Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Douglas Stone, et al.
  • Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, Kerry Patterson, et al.
  • Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Talking about Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior, Kerry Patterson, et al.

3.  Implement “leadership circles,” historically associated with African-American traditions. An example is “Women’s Leadership Circles,” a   project of The Tides Center.

4.   Participate in Courage to Lead workshops.

5.   Provide executive/leadership coaching for all leaders within partner organizations to help them explore values and understand different perspectives.

The most essential element is having a skillful facilitator and at least one alternate. Facilitators must be able to uphold the decided-on norms and dialogue framework. All participants must agree to the norms and be willing to hold each other accountable. Through facilitated communication, partnership members must learn how to engage in productive conflict, which is necessary in order for the group to implement community-wide solutions.

5. Managing the Partnership with Work Plans and Technology


Ensure your collaborative work plans have these key characteristics.

A collaborative work plan is a document that outlines the structure of work for the partnership or a specific initiative within the partnership. Good work plans have the following characteristics:

Establish buy-in

Although collaborative work plans document the work breakdown for your specific tasks, they alone cannot motivate people to action. Increase your success rate by first establishing buy-in for the plan from the members of your work group.

Are realistic

It’s important to be realistic when developing a collaborative work plan. People want to see progress, no matter how incremental. Stay within the scope of your project.

Have measurable outcomes

Consider developing immediate, short-term, and long-term outcomes for your collaborative work plan. Identify how you will determine the success of your activities and efforts. What indicators will you measure?

 Hold people accountable 

Communicate group accountability and interdependence of activities. Show how people’s specific tasks impact the completion of the overall task. Having an effective structure for open, honest communication can support conversations about accountability as issues arise.

It can be tempting to let the lead organization serve as the center for collaborative work. However, when all partners host meetings, facilitate gatherings, or provide training to other partners, responsibility is shared by all members. This, in turn, increases feelings of ownership and long-term commitment to the partnership.

Some of these technology platforms can help you manage your partnerships.

Technology platforms that support online collaboration vary in terms of the depth of collaboration their systems allow. These platform categories include:

                    Methods for distributing information, such as websites and electronic newsletters
                    Systems for collaborating, such as electronic mailing lists and document sharing
                    Systems for real-time interaction, such as Internet forums and online meetings
                    Systems for managing the project, such as web-based project management tools

Technologies for distributing information are the least collaborative because they simply allow a lead organization to distribute information across a network. They’re useful when you need to share a new resource, provide a deadline alert, or update your partners on the status of a project. To go beyond information dissemination, consider using collaboration technologies—platforms that allow multiple participants to have a voice. These platforms for communicating and sharing data allow partners to have a conversation, edit a document together, share data with each other, or all of the above.

Systems for real-time interaction not only provide online collaboration, but allow partners to work together online in real-time, replicating as closely as possible the experience of working in the same room. And, finally, using web-based project management tools allows a lead organization to be completely transparent with project plans, roles, responsibilities, and deadlines. For more information about online technologies for managing your partnership, download this "Technology Choices" document by clicking the link.

6. Partnership Challenges and Evaluation


There are various challenges to sustaining effective partnerships.

It helps to anticipate potential barriers to working effectively with your partners. Some barriers are substantive, which means they involve financial, strategic, or technical issues. Other challenges are relationship-oriented. These issues might relate to leader compatibility, degree of trust, joint problem-solving capacity, or conflict resolution ability.

Other challenges that partnerships may face include turf battles among stakeholders, clashes between different organizational cultures, rigid policies regarding intellectual property, disputes over private sector engagement, inappropriate staffing and role assignments, the ups and downs of community politics, and member burnout. As the partnership evolves, partners must identify whatever barriers exist and work together to resolve them.

Effective partnerships use monitoring and evaluation processes.

Partnerships need to create methods for evaluating and revising aims and objectives. This means providing opportunities to learn what has been successful and what has not and to build these lessons into revised plans. Formal performance management processes, such as clarifying performance expectations and providing feedback, also contribute to partnership monitoring and evaluation.

In addition, it’s important to monitor and report on the health of the working relationship between partners through use of a formal mechanism. This helps identify simmering conflict, negative perceptions, or relationship risks, which can then be constructively addressed before they undercut the partnership. It’s essential to look across multiple relationships to identify organizational barriers to effective partnering.

Monitoring and evaluation also helps partners anticipate changes that may affect the partnership so they can collaboratively plan for the implications of such change. For instance, this helps the partnership to:


  • Adapt to competitive or regulatory environment changes
  • Expand, reduce, or shift the focus of a partner relationship, as needed
  • Reduce negative effects of downsizing, mergers, or restructuring
  • Respond to reorganization and/or departures of key personnel


7. Partnership Transitions and Endings


Transition and closure are natural stages in a partnership.

Every partnership must eventually consider issues of transition and ending. Some partnerships may use this time to renew goals and commitments. Others may find that it’s time to let certain organizational partners go or end the partnership altogether. Have an open and honest discussion with your partners to understand when the partnership is transitioning into a stage of renewal or ending.

Every partnership relationship is unique. What motivates one organization or individual to continue working collaboratively might be very different from what motivates another.  In some instances, one organization may want to leave the partnership. In this case, you can discuss what would need to change to hold everyone’s interests. Perhaps the disinterest is an early warning sign that others are feeling the same way. In other situations it may be in the best interests of both the partner and the partnership as a whole to allow the organization to leave on appropriate terms. Ultimately, partnerships are effective only when all members see a value in continuing their participation and can willingly work together to achieve the common purpose.

Although partnerships need closure, this step is often missed. Too often partnerships end with a hard stop without substantial communication between members. Or they might terminate without a real ending, gradually dwindling down without formally closing out. Make sure to discuss, plan for, and openly acknowledge the departure of a member organization or the formal ending of your partnership.

 Partnership closure is an opportunity to consolidate learning.

 When you close a partnership, it’s part of the natural cycle to consolidate learning. Whether or not you provide structured time to explore “lessons learned,” partnership members will be thinking individually about what worked, what didn’t, people they learned from, and from whom they want to continue to learn.

Since this is already happening at an individual level, you can capture that thinking and use it to close down in a way that allows participants to apply the learning to their next endeavors. You might help people consolidate learning through simple activities in which members describe what worked and what did not. You can also invite individual and group reflections on lessons learned. Or you might ask members to recap accomplishments while also discussing what must be left behind and what needs to be tackled next.



Preparation and sustained effort allow partnerships to evolve.

Deciding on and developing a successful partnership involves a great deal of thought, planning, and coordinated effort. In the beginning, it’s important to consult with all relevant stakeholders to establish a clear need for the partnership. If setting up a partnership makes sense, determine what type of partnership is needed and ensure that there’s commitment from the senior management of all partner organizations. Identify the members’ shared vision and goals and then develop a document that outlines the terms of the partnership. Set up mechanisms for maintaining and monitoring the partnership as it evolves. Recognize that there will be successes as well as challenges, and that the partnership will have its own life cycle.

Here are some additional resources on creating and maintaining partnerships.

1.  Community Partnerships: A Sustainable Resource for Nongovernmental Organizations, by Mark Tranel and Kay Gasen.


This is an article produced by the Public Policy Research Center of the University of Misssouri on the emergence and benefits of community partnerships.

2. . Federal-Community Partnerships, National Civic League.


This site describes a National Civic League Federal-Community Partnerships program (FCP) and its work on a juvenile delinquency prevention initiative.

3.  Center for Community Partnerships, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.


This is the website of the Center for Community Partnerships, an organization that connects the resources of the University of Wisconsin with the resources of communities of southeastern Wisconsin.

4.  Adams Elementary School project signals Forest Park Southeast's rebirth, Washington University.


This is a short article describing collaboration between a school district, medical center, and local residents to revitalize the community.