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Who you choose to partner with is a key factor in project success. A thoughtful and well-documented partner scoping process will help you develop a broad understanding of the range of prospective partners and their strengths and weaknesses, and will ultimately guide your decision about which partner(s) will help you meet your goals in the most strategic and effective way possible. A rigorous scoping process is particularly useful if you are entering a new geography, or developing a new strategy that requires different kinds of partners. Bear in mind that a full scoping effort can be a significant investment of both time and funds (particularly if you hire a consultant to do some of the work), but your project will benefit from choosing the right partner at the outset. Here is a description of the advantages and limitations of undertaking a partner scoping process. Here is a description of the advantages and limitations of undertaking a partner scoping process.

Below you will find a deeper dive into a series of partner scoping steps:

Clarify project objectives

Clear project goals and objectives will help you tailor your scoping process and allow you to identify the expertise and partnerships required to complete the project successfully.

Identify key partner criteria

Based on your project objectives, you can now define the competencies and areas of expertise you will need in order to accomplish those objectives. To fully flesh out a criteria list, you will want to include both programmatic criteria (for example, habitat restoration, real estate transactions, conservation planning) and organizational criteria (for example, relationships with key stakeholders). You will need to determine what your organization can contribute and what gaps need to be filled through partners.

The gaps that you identify make up a significant part of what you want your partner to bring to the table, and can form the basis of your potential partner criteria list. Some tools that can be helpful in identifying criteria for partner selection at this stage include:

  • An assessment of expertise needs. Click here for an example.
  • An assessment of organizational strengths and weaknesses. For guidance on institutional self-assessment, click here.
  • A resource map, to help you identify both the funding requirements for the work, and the non-cash resources that partners can bring to the effort. Find a helpful template on resource mapping, look on page 13/14 of The Partnering Toolbook.

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Identify potential organizations and gather information

You should now create a broad list and basic profiles of prospective partners, in order to better understand the roles they play and the opportunities that each potential partner presents.

To keep track of all of the information that you collect about potential partners, create a Prospective Partner Database . Here you can collect all the information that you gather from public sources, from conversations with knowledgeable third parties (“key informants”) and from conversations with the prospective partners themselves. Click here for a fictional example of a filled in scoping database.

Your database can include the following categories of information:

  • Name and contact information
  • Type of organization
  • Mission and main programmatic lines
  • Geographic coverage
  • Organizational structure
  • Budget and sources of income

How much detail you need depends on the number of prospective partners that you will be sorting through. If there are many possible partners, you probably need to gather more kinds of information to support your decisions. Regardless, the most important thing to remember is to be consistent in gathering the same kind of information from all of the prospective partners on your list.

It’s important to recognize from the outset that scoping is an iterative process. Once scoping meetings begin, additional organizations are often identified that were missed during your initial identification efforts. Expect to add more groups to your list during the course of your research. Click here for additional guidance for interviewing prospective partners, and here for a sample questionnaire to use with prospective partners.

Tips for interviewing prospective partners:

  • Scoping is a two-way street. Not only are you assessing prospective partners – but they are also assessing you. Whatever specific questions you might be asking, be prepared to provide the same information about your organization to ensure an equitable give and take.
  • Plan a realistic timeline and engage your team or hire a consultant. Ensure you have the time needed to scope as comprehensively as possible. Ensure everyone is using the same questions from the scoping tool and conveying similar expectations.
  • Visit as many of the groups as possible and look for both current and potential/future capacity. Although an organization may not currently be doing the kind of work you seek, they may be able to gain the capacity in a relatively short period of time - if they have the interest and the potential.
  • Ask all of the groups the same questions. Use the Prospective Partner Interview Form to ensure that you are systematic and thorough with each interview.

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Narrow the list

Once your database is complete, you will need to work with your team to narrow the list of prospective partners. The information that you have gathered should, at this point, allow you to make good comparisons and elevate a limited number of prospective partners into the final round of consideration.

Teams have approached narrowing their list down in several ways, and it is up to you to choose the methodology that works best for your situation. Here are two possible paths:

  • With a smaller group of potential partner candidates, you can simply engage in a discussion with your team, going through the list and eliminating those that clearly don't meet your needs.
  • With a larger group of potential partner candidates, you can go through a process of quantitative ranking of potential partners and narrow your options down using rankings. See below for more information on ranking potential partners. See below for more information on ranking potential partners

Ranking potential partners
Using a scoring matrix can help you choose among a smaller number of strong partner contenders, and make your decision-making process as transparent and strategic as possible . Remember, however, that this scoring matrix need not be the sole driver of your partner choice, but it will help by providing insights into the relative strengths and weaknesses of prospective partners.

You will populate the Scoring Matrix’s horizontal (“X”) axis with the criteria that your team decided are most important to your strategy (see section: Identify key partner criteria) , and you will populate the vertical (the “Y axis”) with the names of the partners that have emerged as having the greatest potential.

The Scoring Matrix automatically graphs your results on the second page of the spreadsheet, using the data entered on the first page. You can only compare two criteria at a time, so experiment with different combinations and compare results.

Partners that appear in the upper right corner will have scored highly both criteria that you have chosen. Click here for a fictional example of a filled in scoring matrix

Note about weighing criteria: As you work through the criteria that your partners need to meet, your team might decide some criteria are more important than others. In your Scoring Matrix, you can weight individual criteria based on what is most important to the needs of the project at the moment. Another useful tool to help you narrow your list of prospective partners is Stakeholder Influence Mapping Stakeholder influence mapping is a tool to examine and visually display the relative influence that different individuals and groups have over decision-making. This paper describes one approach to doing this and presents several examples from its use.

Several other useful tools are available to help you narrow your list of prospective partners using specific important criteria. Stakeholder Influence Mapping is a tool to examine and visually display the relative influence that different individuals and groups have over decision-making. Another tool (developed by The Nature Conservancy’s Mesoamerica Program), uses evaluation of an organizations strategic importance and demonstrated ability to implement projects effectively to help select partners.

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Make a decision

You should have your final partner options at this stage, but if there is money changing hands, you have one last step to complete: conducting due diligence. In non-profit partnership scenarios, the term due diligence indicates an in-depth analysis of the legal and financial administration of a potential partner. Performing Due Diligence is time intensive and difficult, so you should only apply it to your top partnership candidates, once you have narrowed the field.

Once due diligence is completed (if necessary) and you have decided on your partner(s), you should consider whether a negotiated formal agreement is needed (see Step 3) or whether a strong informal cooperative or coordinated relationship is enough to help achieve your conservation goals.

Making a final choice is not always straight forward. Here are some frequently asked questions:

What if there are no preferred partners?

Build the capacity of an organization with strong potential. An alternative to immediate partnering is to provide support and training to existing organizations that are not currently ready to partner, so that they are better equipped with the skills and abilities to engage in or lead a project or partnership in the future.

Help create a new organization, coalition or network. This can be an expensive proposition, but strong organizations have very effectively fostered new organizations, coalitions or learning networks on a number of occasions. This approach also ties directly into the capacity building materials.

Attract an organization with the right skills that is currently not working in this region. If an effective organization is working in another part of the state or country, it may be possible to help them establish a new program or branch in the priority region. This is often more cost-effective than creating a new organization, but will require joint fundraising or financial support to ensure the partner can maintain operations.

Build your own capacity. On the surface this is the easiest of the alternatives, but this approach still requires thinking through whether you can secure your conservation goals on your own, and it may not deliver long-lasting conservation results.

What if we have mandatory partners?

Sometimes, you might find yourself in a partnership with a group that you would not have otherwise chosen, often because of the group’s status or influence. Poorly managed and underfunded government agencies staffed by political appointees are often mandatory partners. In other circumstances, you will inherit partnerships that were not negotiated well, resulting in uncomfortable relationships that have no clear short-term resolution.

While there is no easy solution to these issues, here are some suggested tactics:

  • When possible, maintain an informal partnership and limit legal commitments with these groups until very specific, attainable and time-bound goals can be identified to help build momentum and trust in the relationship. Starting with small beginnings and limited expectations allows you to build relationships and look for common ground.

  • Find ways to building trust and establish a rapport, like holding in-person meetings, making site visits, hosting informal social gatherings.

  • The priority is to live up to the partner agreement. You must give a good faith effort to meet your goals and commitments, but at the same time you can be working on creating a re-evaluation and/or re-negotiation opportunity for your partnering agreement.

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