Submitted by Shawn Durr on July 9, 2024 - 09:43

The Human Element in Nonprofit Partnerships: Key Considerations for Smooth Transitions

Creating a strategic partnership is not a task to be taken lightly. It demands a significant investment of time and resources, yet the potential rewards make it a worthwhile endeavor. The journey of partnership begins with identifying a suitable ally, understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and crafting shared objectives that transcend individual capabilities. Rigorous due diligence is essential to ascertain the financial stability and governance integrity of the prospective partner organization. While these steps may seem exhaustive, they merely set the stage for the real work that lies ahead. The signing of the closing documents is not the end, but rather the commencement of a new chapter. It marks the start of a collaborative journey, a continuous process of growth, adaptation, and mutual learning. It is the beginning of a shared commitment to addressing complex challenges and achieving common goals. In the realm of strategic partnerships, the end is truly just the beginning.

As both a former non-profit executive director with experience leading nonprofit mergers and currently a strategic advisor to others in this space, I have learned several key lessons. 

Good Endings Lead to Good Beginnings

Marking milestones in the partnership process is crucial. Creating opportunities to acknowledge and grieve what was can make room for what can be. For instance, one board collected one word from each of its members about what their nonprofit meant to them, engraved these words on metal bookmarks, and gifted them at the last official board meeting. This ritual honored the significance of the organization, recognizing its value while paving the way for a new beginning in the partnership.

William Bridges, in his book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, emphasizes that ending well is fundamental to creating successful new beginnings. Honoring the past allows for a smoother transition and sets a positive tone for the future.

Identify and Integrated Important Cultural Rituals

Cultural rituals from each organization should be identified and brought together to create a new shared culture. These rituals, which are structured and repeated activities that carry meaning and significance for its members, reinforce values, culture, and identity, creating a sense of belonging for employees and stakeholders.

Examples of organizational rituals can include observed holidays, how staff and board birthdays are celebrated, or how meetings are started and ended. For instance, some organizations may start meetings with a ‘Mission Moment’ where a story related to the organization’s mission is shared.

Reward and Milestone Celebrations are another type of ritual, where achievements of team members or the organization as a whole are recognized. This could be an annual awards ceremony or a simple recognition in team meetings.

Welcome Rituals for new employees, such as a team lunch or a welcome gift, and Regular Team Events, such as weekly, monthly, or quarterly team events to foster camaraderie, are other examples of rituals that can be integrated into the new shared culture.

By blending these rituals, or the best of each organization, the new partnership can honor the traditions of both while forging a unified culture.

Supporting People Through Change

We tend to think about strategic partnerships as transactional. However, helping people navigate change is crucial to the success of the partnership. It’s important to understand that change can be unsettling for many. As Peter Senge, a senior lecturer at MIT and an expert on organizational learning, aptly puts it, "People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!"

Understanding how to support individuals psychologically to come to terms with the new situation is vital. The nonprofit sector is fundamentally about people – people helping people. It’s important to recognize the human element in organizational change and provide the necessary support to ensure everyone feels valued and understood throughout the process. This takes great emotional intelligence, patience, and communication to ensure people are moving through the change curve.

Structuring strategic partnerships requires careful planning and consideration – logistically and emotionally. By marking milestones, integrating cultural rituals, and supporting people through change, we can create strong successful partnerships that are greater than the sum of their parts.