Q:  We know we are supposed to work with others in the community, but really, how can we create relationships that are win/win if these other organizations are our competitors?


A: I hear fear in your question. If you partner with competitors, they may steal away donors, staff or some of your better ideas. You might lose what makes your organization unique. One has to wonder – given what one could expect to lose from such partnerships – whether it is even possible to gain enough to make the effort worthwhile?

Such underlying thoughts come from a scarcity mind-set – the belief that resources are limited and that you must ensure that you get yours first if you are to survive. But in today’s world, there is no place for such thinking. There are plenty of resources, but they are not necessarily to be found where we have found them before. We must access them differently. Often the only way to access them is collaboratively. So your initial thinking about building partnerships is right on target.

In a recent blog post entitled “Use your Vision to Find Untapped Resources,” I shared a technique for using the strategic intents in your vision statement to help you identify a broad range of potential partners with the capability of giving you the best return on your investment of time, effort and reputation. Assuming you have determined who to approach, let’s talk about how to make any emerging relationships win/win.

Know what you want to accomplish by working together. It should be something important that none of the organizations can successfully achieve alone.

Look for a balanced relationship. When I speak of balance, I’m not suggesting that the entities be “equal.” Rarely is there a true parity between collaborative partners. However, I do believe that everyone and every organization brings something of worth to the table. As long as everyone values the other’s “something” there will be balance and you will increase your chances of experiencing a successful partnership.

Of course, respect for all the people involved and mutual trust are important. Spend some time courting your potential partners to get to know the players well enough to be able to say that regardless of any arguments that may crop up in an ensuing marriage, you are sufficiently dedicated to one another to make the effort to work out any differences.

Just as many couples are opting for prenuptial agreements before tying the knot, your organization should sign a contract with all potential partners. I recommend this not so much for what could go wrong in the future, but for the benefits of the exercise itself. When you have to create a contract, you look at all possible scenarios and determine your options for responding to each of them. The process will help you and the potential partners identify what is most important to your individual entities – what you will negotiate and where you’ll draw any lines in the sand. It will help each of you identify your own strengths, weaknesses and approaches to dealing with problems. This is the place to voice the fears I heard in your question. Such introspection in turn provides additional insights into your potential partners based on the responses to the disclosures that are made. Of course, having in black and white what each entity is responsible for – usually based on the strengths of each entity – will again ensure the best possible outcome.

Let the community know about the partnership and the greater impact it can expect to see as a result of it. Your stakeholders will hold your feet to the fire if you begin to vacillate!

Any time there are differences in how the groups see moving forward always come back to the shared vision and values. Ask yourselves, what options are most likely to get you to that vision while at the same time keeping you true to the values. If there is disagreement, look at what you do agree on. Build on that. If you still deadlock, remind yourselves why you opted to pursue this relationship in the first place. Can you agree to toss out the solution that has you butting heads and start over?

Finally, reframe how you view your partners. Promise to ban the term “competitor.” Ultimately, if you and your partners are in the relationship to have a greater impact, to create a better community, you will make it work.