One of the greatest lessons I have learned in my years of working within non-profit organizations, is the importance of creating and sustaining good partnerships. Whether I was trying to engage a potential funder, connecting with new board members or collaborating with an entity on a future project, it was imperative that I had a very good relationship with these individuals. In my opinion, one of the best aspects of working in non-profits are the amazing relationships you create along your journey.
Connecting with people comes very natural to some. While for others, it may cause angst. Maybe they consider themselves an introvert or just not that great at starting conversations with people they do not know. Perhaps, they are not very good at follow up and follow through (two very important aspects of a good partnership). If you find yourself identifying with any of these traits and would like to improve on your partnership building, keep reading. If you are really great at initially connecting with people but fail at follow through, keep reading. If you want to add to your relationship building skills, keep reading.
When you work in the non-profit sector, majority of your time is spent in three areas: programs, raising money, and building relationships. As you move into leadership positions, the percentage of your time spent in these areas vary, with an increase of your time around building relationships. One of the most critical skills for an Executive Director/CEO or senior leader is creating and sustaining partnerships with constituents, funders, donors and board members. So maybe this is not your strength right now, but there are ways to improve.
Over the years, I have used different strategies to help me create and build strong relationships. They are not groundbreaking or evidence based, but they have worked for me and other colleagues throughout our careers. I hope they work for you too!
Have a clear picture about the kind of partner you would like to have. Think about how they would best fit in with your mission, vision and strategic goals. I have always been committed to having partnerships beyond paper. I did not want to have a plethora of “partners” just to say I had a lot of partners to support our work. I only used the word partner when I had a true relationship with that organization or individual. I treated the word “partner,” the way I would the word “friend.” Not everyone was privy to that title. Yes, I was selective about my partnerships because not every partnership was the best partnership for the organization.
Maintain a running list of individuals and organizations. A good way to keep track of relationships is to create a list. Develop a spreadsheet of people and entities that you would like to connect with, the type of relationship (ie. funder, donor, program partner) you want with each person/organization and any next steps. This list should be updated regularly. It helps to be organized and intentional.
Pick up the phone. Call me old school, but there is nothing like having a conversation with a live person. Keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be a lengthy conversation. Maybe your goal is to re-introduce yourself or begin the discussion about how you would like to partner. I guarantee that you are likely to get more accomplished in a phone call, than over email.
Get out of your office. There is really only so much you can do from behind your desk when it comes to building relationships. You have to be in front of people, engaging them and talking to them. In my opinion, face to face is still the best way to really connect with people and begin building a solid partnership. Attend the events and activities of the entities with whom you would like to connect with in the future.
FOLLOW UP and FOLLOW THROUGH. I cannot stress this enough. There is nothing worst than having a conversation with someone about your new program or conference, sensing their interest of wanting to know more and you not following up in a timely manner. You appear flaky and unreliable. Who wants that from a partner? A good rule of thumb: Send an email or a personal letter within 48 hours to re-introduce yourself and recap your conversation.
Identify opportunities for engagement. Invite your new partner to attend your events as a way to keep them involved and engaged. Ask if they would like to be on your personal email list to receive your blog or newsletter. If appropriate, invite them to be a speaker at an event or a guest writer on the blog. Your goal is to keep them informed and interested about what’s happening in your organization without being pushy and risk turning them off.
Be patient and understand that building a partnership takes time. Cultivating a strong professional relationship does not happen overnight. Some of my most successful partnerships took years to develop, especially relationships with funders. I learned to be less frustrated with the sometimes lengthy process and to appreciate the opportunity to really get to know a potential partner and vice versa. I also appreciated the time to learn if this would be a beneficial partnership for all parties or one that was not quite the right fit.
Whether you are trying to increase the overall number of partners you have for your organization or target partners for something specific, these tips will get you on the right track toward building really great relationships.