When a Partnership Goes Wrong

Planning, open communication and goodwill are the keys to a successful partnership between a not-for-profit and a business. If things go wrong, there are a few things you should try before you throw in the towel.

Things that can go wrong in a partnership between a not-for-profit and a business can range from the minor – a small disagreement, a mistake or a misunderstanding – to major things like a personality clash, a dysfunctional partnership arrangement or criticism from outside and/or within the partnership.

If you’re going to get past the problems, it’s important that both sides are able to pinpoint what is creating obstacles, and then agree on how to remove them – either through discussions or through a previously agreed partnership or crisis management plan.

Warning signs such as conflict, confusion or apathy should be seen as indicators of a deeper underlying problem with a partnership that need to be fixed.

OUR TIP: Partners should not be embarrassed about admitting that something is wrong. Identifying and speaking about problems early makes it more likely that they can be overcome.
Underlying problem Remedy
Lack of planning (on one side or jointly) Go to Remedy 1
Lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities Go to Remedy 1
Lack of communication about who is doing what Go to Remedy 2
Lack of measures for success Go to Remedy 5
Turnover in key staff Go to Remedy 4
Lack of agreement on aims, responsibilities or benefits Go to Remedy 1 & 5
Perception or reality that one side is not pulling its weight Go to Remedy 2 & 3
Mismatch of values relating to communication, respect, honesty, or commitment Go to Remedy 6
Personality mismatch between key partnership personnel Go to Remedy 4
Lack of commitment for the partnership Go to Remedy 4 or 6
Too little resources (particularly time) allocated to the partnership Go to Remedy 3
Feeling of no shared benefits for partners Go to Remedy 2 & 5
Lack of buy-in (by decision-makers or key staff) Go to Remedy 4
Lack of clarity in initial planning about outcomes Go to Remedy 1 & 5
Inability to commit the necessary time or resources to the partnership Go to Remedy 3
Lack of buy-in (by decision-makers or key staff) Go to Remedy 4
Turnover in key staff combined with insufficient documentation Go to Remedy 4
Unresolved conflict Go to Remedy 2 & 6
Perception or reality that one side is not pulling its weight Go to Remedy 2 & 3
Mismatch of values relating to communication, respect, honesty, or commitment Go to Remedy 6
Personality mismatch between key partnership personnel Go to Remedy 4
Unresolved conflict Go to Remedy 2 & 6
Lack of ongoing monitoring and renewal Go to Remedy 5
Lack of buy-in (by decision-makers or key staff) Go to Remedy 4
Partnership has run its course Go to Remedy 6

Treatment for: Lack of clarity about who is doing what; unresolved conflict

Zero in on which aspects of the partnership need to be clearer and work on compiling a revised partnership agreement. Your agreement should take in:

  • Partnership purpose and goals
  • Anticipated benefits for each party
  • Expected duration and/or date for review of partnership
  • Contribution of resources from each party (including budget and time allocations, if relevant)
  • Responsibilities of each party
  • Conditions (e.g. use of names, logos, media relations, etc.)
  • Contact people for each party
  • Decision-making processes, including procedures for amending the partnership, conflict resolution and termination procedures
  • Meeting guidelines – how often; where; when; involving whom

It is not ideal to have to do all of this mid-partnership, as planning should have been completed before the partnership was set up. However, completing some emergency planning is better than having to end your partnership.

Treatment for: Lack of clarity around goals, responsibilities and benefits; unresolved conflict

Review your partnership communication guidelines (if you don’t have any, you need to put some in place).

Your guidelines need to include meeting schedules (including both regular and major review meetings), expected attendees, feedback channels and who is responsible for communicating with the other party about what.

You may also wish to provide some dot-point examples of the sorts of things that each party feels it is important to communicate about (e.g. key personnel changes, upcoming media scandals, PR opportunities, etc.).

You may also wish to review the performance of the personnel put in charge of managing communications for the partnership.

Treatment for: Unbalanced load; insufficient resource allocation

Revisit your partnership agreement to check who said they’d do what, and by when. (If no such agreement was ever drawn up, it’s time to do so now.)

Schedule a meeting with your partner, stating that you want to review the allocation of responsibilities. Try to lead a frank but good-natured discussion, bearing in mind that sometimes attention can be drawn away from a partnership for a time for justifiable reasons.

Be understanding of your partner’s realities. There may be a need for a reallocation of responsibilities if one partner is struggling, or if the partnership dynamic has changed.

Treatment for: Turnover in key staff; lack of buy-in; personality clash

Whatever agreements you have in place, the key ingredient for partnership success is always going to be the people involved in running it – not just those who make the agreements, but those who do the work.

In the early days of the partnership (preferably before you’ve even made an agreement) work hard to make sure staff/volunteers understand the benefits of the partnership, and feel comfortable that that particular partner will be a good fit for your organisation. If you can’t convince them of that, you have to be prepared to walk away.

The same applies to buy in “from above”. It is very hard indeed to keep a partnership humming when there’s no support from key decision-makers. You have to make them aware of the benefits. You’re kidding yourself if you think you can just let it all happen under the radar.

If staff move on you need to be prepared to start the buy-in process all over again.

You also need to pay close attention to the allocation of responsibilities – make sure you assign the role of communications to your best communicator; don’t put your prickliest staff members on the front line; don’t assign important tasks to the person least convinced about the benefits of this partnership, or the person who already has too much to do.

Documentation is important in guarding against the time when (inevitably) a key staff member/volunteer moves on from the partnership. Handover procedures are also important.

Treatment for: Lack of refined measurement tools; feeling of no shared benefits for partners. In order to measure and evaluate the success of a partnership, you need goals that are:

  • Specific – try to avoid statements like “build a better world”; go for solid outcomes such as “100 new members” or “100 new customers”.
  • Measurable – numbers are easiest, but you can also attempt to measure mood and attitude through qualitative surveys and interviews.
  • Attainable – don’t set the bar too high, particularly when you’re setting out and need some quick wins.
  • Realistic – are both parties both willing and able to reach all of your goals?
  • Timely – by what date (even if roughly) do you think you should be able to reach each goal?

All parties must agree to all the goals, but it’s important that everyone understands that stating goals does not imply entering a contract to achieve them – think of your goals as a beacon you’re all trying to move towards. Some will take a long time to reach; some will have to be revised or shifted along the way.

It’s important that the goals you set relate to both parties in more or less equal measure. If only one side is feeling the benefits it’s less likely that the other side will feel fully committed to the partnership.

Treatment for: Mismatch of values relating to communication, respect, honesty, or commitment; lack of commitment for the partnership; irreconcilable differences

Partners must have some common ground or philosophies on which to base their relationship – if not, it won’t work. If your partnership is struggling because of a lack of common ground or a mismatch in values, it may be time to move on.

The same can be true if one or both sides are consistently struggling to find the time and resources that this partnership needs to survive, or where a particular conflict keeps flaring up again and again and again. A quick break may be better than death by a thousand cuts.

If you do decide that it’s time to end a partnership prematurely, you need to try to remain polite, cooperative, sympathetic and generous, even where there is some animosity or resentment.

Here are some things you will probably want to manage on your way out:

  • Deal with leftovers. If there are any leftover or unallocated funds, resources, goods or information relating to the partnership discuss with your partner what should happen to them.
  • Manage the exit. Your decision to end your partnership could need to be communicated to a number of parties, including:
    • Your members, staff, volunteers, donors, and other supporters/stakeholders
    • Your partner’s members, staff and customers
    • Local authorities and VIPs (councillors, MPs)
    • The public
    • The media.
    Work with your partner to determine what will be said, by whom, to whom, how and when.

  • Review Your Partnership. Both partners need to carefully review the partnership to make sure you pick up the important points you need to make a better partnership next time.

Try to avoid bad feelings. In some circumstances this may be difficult – for example, issues involving illegal activities or breaches of confidence or trust – but do your best to work through the issue at hand, rather than the personalities involved, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because your ability to exit a partnership discretely and respectfully will most likely be taken into account in any future partnership proposal.

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