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Before you launch a new collaborative relationship, an important first step is to reflect and make sure that a partnership is a critical tool in moving your strategy forward. There are many good reasons to build a partnership, but they do not come without risks and challenges. Once you are certain that you need to partner, it is essential to consider what kind of partnership you need and build a strong internal team to carry the work forward

There are some important things to consider before you move forward and create a partnership:

Do I really need a partner?

Conservationists have learned from experience that there are situations where an organization may be better off working on its own:

  • When a situation is time sensitive or on a very short time line;
  • When one organization has the staff and capacity to fully implement the project by itself;
  • When there is a good chance of success based solely on one organization’s capacity.

If you cannot reach your conservation goals alone, you still may not need a partnership – you may be able to meet your needs using a contract. A contract is used to pay someone external to your organization to complete specific, activity-based deliverables. In a contract relationship, power roles are clear, authorities and resources are kept entirely separate, and there is little to no long-term investment is made in the partner or the relationship. These relationships are typically low risk.

Potential Advantages
Potential Challenges
  • Develop new ideas or new relationships that increase the quality and quantity of conservation
  • Exchange technical expertise, data, and information
  • Provide, receive or expand funding
  • Reduce financial costs
  • Access new decision-making authority or new constituents
  • Leverage influence of partners over other actors
  • Organizational innovation – trying new approaches
  • Embed long-term sustainability and resilience into a project
  • Develop a conservation ethic in other organizations, communities, key stakeholders
  • Develop our own capacity
  • Increase capacity among other organizations, communities, and key stakeholders
  • Differing expectations
  • Expecting quid pro quos
  • Ill-defined partner roles and responsibilities
  • New information that changes fundamental assumptions on which the partnership is based
  • "Trapped" in unproductive partner relationships
  • Limited partner capacity to implement key conservation strategies
  • Larger partners perceived as always “in charge” or as a cash machine
  • Perception of “abandonment” if one partner reduces its resource commitment
  • Gaps in strategies and visions
  • Unsustainable partners and resources
  • Forced into a partnership by past agreement – want out!

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What type of partnership do I need?

Partnerships take a variety of forms, but they all have four basic components: a rationale for working together, a scale of operation, a sector from which the partner(s) comes, and a type of relationship. It’s important to be clear what you are seeking from each of these components before you move forward with a partnership.

Rationale for partnering
Scale of partnership
Partners from different sectors
Different types of relationships



Measuring success







Multilateral institutions

Bilateral agencies

Private enterprises

Academic institutions

Indigenous communities

Conservation NGOs

Other nonprofits




*note that this table and associated content is modified from the TNC Place-based Partnership manual

Rationale: Partnerships should be formed and disbanded based on the needs, goals, and resources of the partners. Ensuring that the right partners are involved at the right step is critical to productive partnerships. An organization that makes a great partner for one step might not make the best partner for the next step. For example, a partner for setting priorities through work on an ecoregional plan may not be the appropriate partner for implementing a public policy solution. Choosing the right partner for the right goals is important to getting started on the right foot.

Scale: Partnerships are important at all geographic scales. Planning a prescribed burn with the U.S. Forest Service at the local preserve is an example of a local partnership. Creating a national trust fund for conservation in Jamaica, Guatemala, and Panama in partnership with government ministries and international NGOs is an example of a partnership at the regional scale. Partnerships at a global level can lead to planning, developing, and implementing strategies in multiple countries or across continents. Global partnerships can be complex, because they cover the broadest geographic scale and involve large organizations or agencies with many decision-making steps. Global partnerships frequently take years to develop and negotiate, but they have the potential to greatly increase our conservation impact and leverage conservation around the world at hundreds of conservation areas simultaneously.

Sector: Building partnerships across sectors can lead to the development of imaginative, coherent and integrated solutions for what seem like intractable problems. Cross-sectoral partnerships can stimulate the exchange of learning from each other’s experience and the ability to draw on each other’s expertise and resources. But while cross-sectoral partnerships have enormous potential, they also require more time and attention in the early stages of development. Ensuring clarity around objectives, roles, and expectations is essential.

Type: There are three basic types of business relationships with partners, varying in degrees of legal formality, expectations, and levels of risk: cooperation, coordination, and collaboration. It is critical for all partners to understand and agree to the intensity of partnership they are committing to.

Lower Intensity -------------------> Higher Intensity

Shorter-term, informal relationships

Shared information only about subject at hand

Separate goals, resources, and structures

Longer-term effort around a project or task

Some planning and division of roles

Some shared resources, rewards, and risks

More durable and pervasive relationships

New structure with commitment to common goals

All partners contribute resources and share rewards and leadership

The continuum of increasing intensity for building relationships and working together. Adapted from the Collaboration Handbook (Winer and Ray, 1994, p. 22).

For more detailed information on cooperation, coordination and collaboration click here and here.

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Do I have the right internal team engaged?

Effective partnerships combine different skills, experience and assets to solve complex problems. To prepare your organization to partner, you need to align your staff and resources appropriately. Click here to read one organizations commitment to being a thoughtful and effective partner.

Strong partnership teams include both “science” skills like strategic planning, facilitation and evaluation as well as “art” skills including the values, attitudes, and skills that will help create relationships built on trust and mutual respect.

Attributes to look for in staff and volunteers who will work with partners are illustrated in the table below.




Shared Responsibility

Transparent communication





Constructive Spirit

Realistic Expectations




Conflict Management

Project Management

Effective Communication

Other key things to consider as you build your internal team:

  • Identify a clear point person who is aware of all activities of the relationship, fully understands the partner’s values, culture, skills, and programs, and has authority to make decisions and respond to opportunities (or risks) in a timely manner. This responsibility should be in the point person’s annual objectives.

  • Ensure adequate staff time and funding are available to advance the project. This is particularly important in the start-up period to reduce funding and staffing stress as the partnership builds and begins to show results. Once you show results, it becomes easier to secure funding going forward.

  • Form a Team for Partnering. You will invest many organizational resources and much staff time in your partnerships. Selecting, negotiating, implementing, and evaluating a partnership is a significant undertaking. It is difficult to do the work and make all the judgment calls alone. Be sure there is a clear, workable, and timely decision making process in place so that all of your team members know their roles and responsibilities. Click here for a chart that can help you plan internally for a new partnership project scoping process, and identify what staff need to be involved at various stages of the process.

engaged throughout the process
engaged as needed
engaged very occasionally

Conservation Practitioner Peers – A staff member who has extensive experience working with partners (even if not the lead practitioner) can be important as a mentor and advisor.

Geographic Expertise – A team member or consultant who is culturally familiar with the region, knows many key informants, and has good connections and relationships in the area brings enormous value to the team.

Programmatic Expertise – If you are looking for a science-based partner, have a scientist on the team. If you are looking for a policy partner, have a Government Relations staff person on the team. Their programmatic expertise will be critical in ensuring partners have the needed capacity and that roles and responsibilities are effectively assigned.

Legal – For all documented agreements, your legal team must be involved. And the earlier you engage your legal staff in the process, the better they can help steer you towards the most effective type of agreement.

Marketing – A marketing person is often needed for communications to develop shared media announcements, crediting, stories.

Philanthropy – A philanthropy staff member is critical when shared fundraising agreements are in place and for reports to donors, donor visits and related activities.

Operations –Human resources staff can support help you and your team build the skills you need. You will need your finance staff to help with fund transfers and grants.

Supervisors – As the goals and nature of the type of partnership being pursued becomes clear, you may need to obtain a delegation of authority or full supervisor approval.

External Consultants – Some teams contract external consultants when the time investment is more than project staff can take on, or a specific capacity is missing in the team (i.e., geographic depth of relationships, expertise in a particular sector).

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