Four Ways to Develop Effective Community Partnerships
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Brand and reputation are powerful tools for businesses in the competition for attention, but not everything in branding is a zero-sum game. Often, the best outcomes stem from strategic collaborations with like-minded people and organizations. This is what makes community partnerships so powerful – whether you’re taking the first steps to build a brand strategy or looking to expand your toolbox.

Consumers and the public are drawn to a brand’s authenticity, and as a 2019 Inc. column reminds us, this starts with “showing, not telling.” Brands are also increasingly expected to demonstrate genuine bonds to issues and causes that matter.

One study suggested as many as 72% of consumers wanted brands to be positive contributors to society, 64% to use their power to help people, and just under half to “raise the moral standard for others.”

These goals are more accessible than they seem. Finding at least one cause important to you and building a tangible connection to it highlights the conscience of your brand and can position you as an influencer in that particular area.

Here’s how to strike community partnerships right – and avoid striking out.

1. Make the right connection.
Keep a particular issue, event or cause in mind that aligns closely with your institutional mission – before approaching a potential partner. Your goals are to retain credibility and maximize success by targeting the people most affected by the issue.

I advise clients not to attempt to force relevance. A healthcare startup offering technologies that improve preventative care might be a natural partner for a charity run benefiting cancer research. But seeking out a big-name organization whose daily work isn’t relevant to your institutional mission may look more self-serving than altruistic.

2. Watch out for red flags.
Be vigilant of any signs that teaming up will not work. As an organization, you will want to avoid a messy or embarrassing situation that comes from having to back out of a partnership.

Always be diplomatic about the hard conversations, such as money or project responsibilities, but never avoid them. Engaging these areas early on will suggest how each side interacts, as well as what they will bring to the table working together.

3. Set clearly defined goals.
From choosing a car to a job candidate, we tend to have a few basic must-haves that guide our decisions. Community partnerships are not much different. Both sides should share the same big-picture mission, and have a reasonable expectation of what success looks like when it comes to working together. Big decisions must be shared, and any reluctance by your partner to move forward on them should itself be seen as a red flag (or at least one that requires a candid discussion).

You should share clear understandings about the time, talent and other resources each side will commit, prioritize your goals, and be prepared to track your progress. Rely on both qualitative and quantitative data to measure your partnership’s effect and attention, particularly if a financial impact such as a certain fundraising goal is your definition of success. 

4. Get innovative.
Think outside the box for ways to both develop and sustain a partnership. NPR’s Project Blueprint is a great mental mapping resource for organizations that are starting out. Think about the visibility channels that will offer maximum exposure and make the most sense for the type of partnership you’re pursuing. Will traditional advertising like billboards or posters work best? Or might it make sense to launch a podcast, blog or a presence on Medium to tell the story of your experiences?

Formal partnerships go deeper than advertising a charity’s winter coat drive on your website, or tweeting about donating blood to the American Red Cross. At its best, partnering up is truly a win-win for organizations, drawing greater exposure and higher profitability, while building on the moral authority factor the most sophisticated brands need to survive in today’s world.