Transforming Partnerships, One Conversation at a Time

It was the largest first-time funding commitment our department ever made. From the initial research to the first meeting, through site visits, internal meetings and reports, we were finally making the program a reality. But soon after high-fiving my colleague, I realized if this partnership evolved like others, it was likely the relationship was about to peak.

While our new partners were appreciative now, they already received gifts 10 times our size from other companies. Before long, we would talk about renewing for next year. Inevitably, they would ask for more. Dread was creeping in, and our partnership had just begun.

The realizations following that day changed my relationships with nonprofit partners forever and in the process, increased the impact of programs both for our company and the organizations we funded. 


During the first meeting, I let our new partner know that while we were as enthusiastic about the work they were doing as other funders, our decentralized structure meant it was unlikely our funding would reach similar levels. While maintaining high expectations, I encouraged an appropriate cultivation strategy and asked for their ideas about how we could work together most effectively.

Our partner was gracious and enthusiastic. They were delighted their proposal was compelling enough to earn a ‘reach’ gift their first year and appreciated the work done at the company on their behalf. While they confessed to imagining a larger ask in the future, they vowed to work diligently to impress the company leaders so and advocate on their behalf at any funding level. Future requests always included an opportunity for deeper reach, but never undermined the value of our initial gift.


That moment of truth allowed us to celebrate a milestone, changed the trajectory of our relationship and defined how we would work together. After that conversation, others came more easily. We spoke about how we worked with other partners, and focused on learning about the partnerships that were most satisfying.  We discovered some clues to insure success in our relationship and started to create a shared vision of how we might work together most successfully. We also learned about how each of our organizations defined goals, got things done and monitored progress. These early conversations helped us work together efficiently and saved time later.

Like any good relationship, communication is key. When partners respect one another, learn from one another and unite towards a common goal, people, partnerships and organizations can be transformed. Further, starting a partnership on a more even playing field made it more resilient and efficient than others.