There is more to life than money. Ask any diehard Collingwood or Penrith Panther fan over the weekend if they would have traded their match ticket for money. I bet most of them would have opted to be in the stadium and share the jubilant celebrations of their team’s victory.
When organisations ask partnership people to focus on bringing in corporate money, they miss the point. Whilst cash helps to grease the wheels of operations, that’s not what partnerships are all about. Corporate partnerships help the whole organisation be more successful by delivering on its mission and creating transformational change for the cause. Non-profits exist to change society for better, not report on balance sheet growth.
The author Alex Hill in his new book Centennials looks at the habits of great organisations that have endured and thrived for decades. There are some lessons for non-profits and their approach to partnerships. How can you build and sustain success for years to come?
Have a stable core
One of the features of great organisations is their maintenance of a core of skilled, experienced, ‘stable stewards’. They are not usually the leaders; instead they are highly capable people with a deep understanding of what the organisation does, how it operates and what the fundamental beliefs and behaviours are. Continuity is important, especially in relationship management roles, as it allows partnership managers to build trust and connection with corporate partners. Think of your partnerships team. How many have been there more than three years? The war for talent and the high rate of burnout in the community sector often leads to value destroying staff churn. Stable stewards provide an anchor point, in the same way as sergeants in the army. Leaders come and go, as do the troops, but sergeants are there to develop the next wave of talent. Without that stable core, new partnership recruits will cycle through the same old ideas, thinking they are fresh. They will have no-one to inspire them about the organisation’s ethos, principles and vision and will be unable to translate that for their corporate partners. The churn in staff will lead to a churn in partners and you’ll burn some relationships permanently along the way.
Use brilliant people part time
Every organisation benefits from fresh ideas and perspectives. Adding the input of brilliant people at the right time can inject new energy and provide a disruptive edge to the organisation. These new people need to be supported by your stable stewards or you’ll just have disruption without the value creation. This is a great opportunity to leverage your corporate partners and their expertise. Inviting them to collaborate on selected projects can help you find breakthroughs you never thought of and deepens their commitment to your non-profit. Camp Quality wrestled with the problem of delivering support and education during COVID lockdowns to children and families affected by cancer. By collaborating with their partner Fujitsu, and leveraging their technology and innovation, they created a brand-new online program and app to deliver vital information to their beneficiaries. Use the brilliant people working for your partners to help you revitalise your mission and your operations.
Make time for random
If your non-profit is continually focused on costs and revenues, you’ll find that innovation gets squeezed out. Making time for random means increasing the chances of innovation and preventing the organisation stagnating. We find it commonly among non-profits who have one major source of funding such as child sponsorship. The fear of doing something that undermines the core revenue stream means that risk taking and innovation is stifled. It leads to corporate partnerships becoming a marginal activity, not the opportunity for big transformation. If non-profits wants to thrive and evolve, they need to work with people who are unlike them. These people are termed ‘adjacent friends’ and they bring their own set of skills and expertise, but they operate in very different fields. It’s why NASA brings in psychologists and nutritionists to work with their astronauts, not just scientists and engineers. For non-profits the corporate partners are perfect adjacent friends. They may be aligned but they offer a very different perspective and ways of working that could stimulate innovation.
For partnership managers, how often do you hang out with your program or services people? Or those in marketing and comms? Probably not often. But you’re missing out on those chance encounters that generate new ideas and opportunities. I once got chatting in the tearoom to the program evaluation manager and found that her uncle was the CEO of a company I’d been trying to prospect for months. You need to make time for random because those connections generate gold.
You may not want your non-profit to last for a hundred years. Ideally, you’d like to be out of business having solved that big societal problem. But if you’re going to be around for a few decades more, you need to move away from just squeezing more revenue out of your corporate partners and explore how they can help make you achieve a great and enduring impact.