Which comes first: the partnership or the plan?

Our firm La Piana Consulting works with dozens of organizations each year on planning: strategic planning, business planning, succession planning—you name it. We also specialize in strategic restructuring: mergers and other forms of partnership between and among nonprofit organizations. All nonprofits engage in the former, many in the latter. Our belief is an organization should never tackle one without giving serious consideration to the other.

Every nonprofit does at least some of its work in collaboration with others. Most could go further, however. Joint programming, back office consolidation, joint venture, merger, collaborative scaling, networked action, collective impact—there are many ways to increase impact by working with others. How and when should an organization plan for this? What kind of planning is called for? What should an organization tackle first? To answer these questions, we consider planning from three angles.

1. Planning as catalyst

Strategic planning is the most common approach to strategy formation. Organizations also form strategy in “real time.” The latter approach is a big focus of ours and the topic of one of our books, The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution: Real-Time Strategic Planning in a Rapid-Response World, which argues the environment is changing so rapidly, nonprofits need to be forming, evaluating, and updating strategy on an ongoing basis, not just every two, three, or four years, when the latest strategic plan expires.

Regardless of the model used, strategy formation involves careful consideration of internal factors (mission, vision, business model, big questions) and external realities (trends, competitive landscape, market position, competitive advantage, need/demand). A single organization may begin a strategy formation process without any specific intent to partner, but the simple act of addressing the question, “Is there anyway in which partnership could allow us to better advance our mission?” may open doors to previously unrecognized opportunities.

Succession planning is another opportunity to consider partnership. Succession planning is the ongoing process of defining the organizational roles and capacities needed for success and of identifying and developing personnel to prepare them to fill those roles as needed. It may also involve considering “out of the box” responses to future leadership transitions. For example, “Would sharing an Executive Director CFO/Director of Human Resources with another organization help us to be more efficient and effective as we go forward?” Here again the planning comes first, but when done well, includes consideration of future strategic restructuring options and opportunities.

2. Planning to inform negotiations

While a formal planning process may lead to a decision to explore options for strategic restructuring, opportunities for partnership can and do arise at anytime. Planning isn’t far behind, however, and is in fact an integral part of the negotiations process. Sometimes that planning is at a very high level: “What is the programmatic scope of the partnership? How will [our combined effort] be structured, governed, managed, staffed, and financed? What will we continue to do independently?” In many cases, agreement on “the basics” may be sufficient to secure agreement from all parties to move forward.

In other cases, a potential partnership may be sufficiently complex as to require a full business planning process prior to a decision to move forward, either because of the number of parties involved, the complexity of the proposed business model, or the nature of the questions posed by key stakeholders such as board members or funders. The deeper dive of business planning allows those involved to develop, define and consider the parameters of an economically and operationally successful undertaking—and then make an informed decision based on the result.

3. Planning for implementation

Once two or more organizations have agreed to work together, they must implement. In a straight forward partnership (a jointly developed education program for new parents, for example, or an agreement to share a CFO) an MOU and an action plan may be all that is needed. In a more complex or highly integrative partnership (a merger, perhaps, or newly-formed coalition of similarly-focused advocacy organizations) a full-fledged strategy formation process may be called for. Or, if the partnership is focused on starting or scaling something new, large, or high-risk, business planning may be appropriate. As with planning to inform negotiations, the opportunity for partnership may have arisen outside of a formal planning process, but a formal planning process will very often follow the decision to partner.

Have those leading your organization considered the possibility of partnership recently? If not, and you have a planning process coming up, consider including a discussion of how working with others could help you better advance your mission and achieve your vision. It is certainly an appropriate question at anytime an organization is considering its future. For those occasions when the partnership opportunity comes first, get ready to jump into planning—together—for a whole new level of success.

See also:

The Nonprofit Business Plan: A Leader’s Guide to Creating a Successful Business Model

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