My talk about how to find a partner organization for your nonprofit led to several questions about how organizations pick and choose local partners to work with. About why they don’t pick your nonprofit as a partner, maybe.

Recap: why are they looking for a partner?

First of all, let’s recap why an organization might be looking for a partner. They might look for a local group that can implement activities locally as part of a bigger programme. They might look for specific expertise to complement their own. Or they might look for access to a specific community, including know-how in addressing that community.

What might be their criteria to choose a partner?

The key criterion is of course: which organization can bring what is needed? Which organization shares values and has that access and know-how, specific expertise or the capacity for local implementation of a wider programme? Additionally, it is likely important that the potential partner is reliable, accountable and transparent. And that they are communicative inside the relationship.

How can they find out who meets their criteria?

To find out who meets the criteria, organizations may ask others for tips for who might make a good partner. They may ask a potential partner for references and check these out. Or they can ask to see certain documentation, for instance about previous projects, staff CVs or around internal processes and systems. All a combination of these.

Trusted partners

This process can easily lead to the same organizations partnering with each other seemingly constantly. Organizations who have become each other’s trusted partner. At the exclusion of other possible contenders. And this can be frustrating of course if you would like to engage in a partnership with someone who is ‘married’ to another nonprofit.



Imagine yourself in their shoes…

You may be very right in being frustrated. And it may even be that you have added value that is now missing in the partnership. So, it may be a loss to the partners, too, not to have you there. But before you get all upset about that, let’s think about why these partners would stop looking further.

Firstly, they have cooperated before and they know each other. They know the good and the bad about each other. And they have probably found ways of dealing with the bad while benefiting from the good. The people in both organizations have likely also built relations, beyond purely business communications. So, they are at a stage where they know what to expect from each other. That predictability makes the relationship safe and comfortable.  Indeed, a bit like a marriage.

Secondly, a break-up might pose a risk. Not only would they need to look for another partner whom they may not know as well. But a break-up can also make them look bad. Especially if the other partner did not want to break up and starts badmouthing the one who initiated the break-up.

Thirdly, they may not know about you.

And fourthly, they may know about you but it may seem risky to them to have you as a partner. It may be unclear if you have the needed systems in place for proper project management and finance management for instance. And if you don’t, they would need to help you set that up. And they may not have sufficient human resources available for this kind of capacity building.

… and plan your next steps accordingly

Now that you know what might be at stake for the partners you can plan your next steps accordingly.

  • First of all, make sure you know what kind of partner they might need to complement the team. (Indeed, let’s not start planning for a break-up, let’s look at expanding the partnership!)
  • Second, check that you indeed could be that partner. That you have what they might need. And that your values are aligned to theirs. (If not, then don’t bother and look for a better opportunity!)
  • Third, make sure you can show that you have this specific expertise, access and know-how or the capacity to implement locally something that might have been developed elsewhere. And make sure they can see how your values show up in your work.
  • Fourth, make sure you have and can show your systems. Make sure that you can show that you are reliable, accountable and transparent and have experience and systems ready for managing people, money and projects. Also have your past experience visible on your website and social media profiles for easy reference.

Now you are ready to start a conversation with the partners to see if there is a space for you in their project activities. It might not have the shape of a full partnership of course, in the beginning. You might be just a participant at first. Or a hired expert. Or a small sub-grantee. Never mind about that.

Remember, all big adventures start with a small step. If you show up like the most active participant, the most useful expert or the most impactful sub-grantee, there is every chance you can have a bigger role in a next adventure!

My key tips

  • Always try to imagine yourself in the shoes of the organization who is choosing another partner and ask yourself why. Why are they choosing the other organization? What are the things they think that other organization can bring? What risks might they see if they would not choose that partner? What risks might they see in collaborating with you?
  • Invest in professionalizing your nonprofit so that you can be a reliable, trustworthy, transparent, accountable partner – and can show that easily!
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of having well-maintained, informative and attractive social media profiles and a functional website.

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