For Nonprofits: 5 Tips for Picking a Partner

While enjoying Smithsonian Magazine’s Free Museum Day this past Saturday, I viewed the Sketchtravel exhibit at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. The project got me thinking about unique partnerships that nonprofits form and how they benefit the parties involved.

Before I share a few tips on the partnership process, I want to explore the Sketchtravel idea and see how it brought a new audience to an already successful nonprofit.

Sketchtravel was a unique idea performed by 71 artists in an Olympic torch-like relay through 12 countries over 4-and-a-half years. The idea was simple: pass a sketchbook between artists to each produce one page of artwork. This project produced quite a following from its blog and videos. Once the book was filled with sketches the artists were set to auction it off for charity. But which one?

The artists chose to benefit Room to Read to assist in the nonprofit’s mission to provide “literacy and gender equality in education” for children in developing countries. Specifically the project benefited Room to Read’s South East Asia programs to “establish libraries, encourage development of local language, culturally relevant children’s books, and foster literacy in other ways.”

This alignment between the Sketchtravel project and Room to Read brought nearly $100,000 to the charity from the auction of the single sketchbook as well as a sense of purpose to the artwork. The project also brought Room to Read’s mission to artist’s around the world and, through a successful Kickstarter campaign to publicly show the artwork beginning with the Cartoon Art Museum, to an audience that could appreciate education through artistic mediums.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Over the years I have fostered and reshaped existing partnerships to build brand alignment while raising funds and awareness for nonprofits. My favorite remains an event begun by a former colleague that I took over for several years involving the Patriots cheerleaders washing dogs to benefit the Massachusetts SPCA. Each year that event grew, from the media placements to the funds raised while providing a unique, fun event for the community. Viewing the Sketchtravel exhibit made me once again appreciate the value of creating a unique partnership. If you are looking to partner with another nonprofit or a business, here are some tips that will help you through the process:

The Need

Before you start making a list of potential partners you need to identify your need(s). Are you looking to raise awareness for your mission or an individual project? Are you seeking funds from a new partner or event? Will this be a one-off partnership or something that you may foster for years to come? Once you have found your need you can move on to the next step of identifying a partner.

Choosing a Partner

When making a list of potential partners you should also ask yourself what your organization can bring to the table. Many times businesses want to join forces with a nonprofit that will publicly share their good deeds or soften their public image. Can you help them with that goal? Are you a friend of the media and can you shine that light on your partner? While some businesses are pleased with brand placement at an event or on your website accompanied by a joint press release and media engagement you should also think outside of the box. Can you help create volunteer days chronicled on your social media or a video campaign highlighting the partnership?

Close the Door

When approaching a partner with your idea and hashing out the details of your joint venture, remember to be honest with each other. Save the platitudes for when the cameras are rolling. When you are behind closed doors honestly state what you hope to get out of this partnership and what you can bring to the table. Do not let your deliverables exceed your resources just to get something in return. Remain open to new suggestions as your potential partner also brings information to the table. You should both be flexible, creative, and honest.


Once the partnership kicks off you must hold yourself and your partner accountable to your agreement. If you find yourself carrying all of the water you must correct the balance in your relationship quickly. Keep to your timeline of deliverables and make sure that everyone begins development of each mini-project with enough advance notice to come to fruition. I have seen too many partnerships fail because great ideas from the table are swept under the rug once day-to-day activities creep up.


Once your project is complete, ask yourself if you would do it again. What would you do differently? Did you find you were doing all of the work? Were the agreed upon deliverables actually delivered? Each partnership is a learning experience filled with growing pains. Remember that even if you do not wish to partner with the same organization or business again you learned some valuable lessons to bring into your next partnership.

How have you built successful partnerships? Share your partnering experiences and questions in the comments section below.

Learn about how to prevent a partnership from becoming a crisis.


One thought on “For Nonprofits: 5 Tips for Picking a Partner

  1. Pingback: No Safety in Ignorance: Vetting Potential Partners « BrianAdamsPR

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