For the last two decades, I have been responsible for developing healthy partnerships for the ministry I serve, Dare 2 Share. During that time I have experienced more than my share of missteps and misunderstandings. It’s probably one of the most difficult areas of my role to navigate – yet, I love it! I love the creativity it requires to build a win/win for both sides of the relationship and I take on the challenge of communicating expectations with a smile because of the opportunity it provides to cultivate deep, lasting friendships along the way.

These years of experience have also served as a ‘refining fire’ of what to do and what not to do in the area of partnerships and I’m hoping that these lessons help you and save you some time:

Lots of friends, but only a few partners – There is a difference between an endorsement and a partnership. An endorsement is a strong recommendation for a person, product, place, company, etc. Most often an endorsement is spontaneous and unsolicited. Exchanging reciprocal endorsements does not constitute a partnership. It implies that you are friends and that you have a mutual respect for each other. My neighbor is my friend. He has a great lawn, can give you tips on how to garden and will lend you a power tool in a pinch. My husband is my partner. He and I are in it for the long haul and we don’t just live in the same house, we are building a home together. I encourage you to have a lot of friends but to choose your partners carefully and prayerfully.

Do something together that you can’t do alone – Look at the marriage metaphor again. Without my husband, I wouldn’t be able to fulfill the vision for building a home that both he and I share. Neither one of us could do it alone. When you choose a partner, create a vision to do something together that leverages what both of you are great at in order to forge a new thing that couldn’t be done without each other. And if you can’t build something new together, than make sure that you make each other better in a way that makes sense. In ministry, a strong partnership also advances the Kingdom in exponential ways. Ask questions like, “Will the partnership help both ministries advance the Kingdom faster and further?” “Does this relationship add value to my offer or accelerate its success? If the answer is yes, then you have the beginning of a great partnership.

Don’t promise what you can’t deliver – Be clear about what you bring to the table. Don’t offer to promote the other everywhere if you aren’t willing to do that every time you open your mouth. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard this. I’ve actually had to tell the prospective partner that I “wasn’t interested” because of how quickly they offered to “include us in everything they do”. Seriously? How can you promise that? Either you should be working for me instead of XYZ, or you are setting me up for some heavy-duty disappointment. Just refuse to go there. Believe me, it’s worth it. Force the potential partner to qualify and quantify and then put it all on paper. And do the same for them. Then, over deliver. No one ever complains if you do more than you planned and it goes a long way toward a long-term relationship.

Identify the KPI – Determine a set of mutually agreed upon key performance indicators. It’s best if these are measurable markers of whatever you are building together, but they don’t all have to be completely quantifiable. Just make sure that you have at least one absolutely objective indicator and then feel free to add one or two more that you both feel good about. Just keep in mind that the more subjective, the more you will need to define. Ask questions early in the negotiating like, “What does success really look like?”

Switch sides – Just like in volleyball, you gain a different perspective when you cross over to the other side. Switch sides and see if you both still agree it’s a win/win. If there’s any doubt at all, make suggestions to make it equitable. Remember a win/lose for you is even worse than a lose/lose so don’t try to get the upper hand. No sustainable partnership is built that way.
Check-in early and often – This builds relational equity and provides space for adaptation. Are you making amazing progress toward that vision that you defined together? Sometimes circumstances change and you realize there is a better way to get there. Often, you learn a few things early as you are working together and you need to fold some of those learnings into the plan. Either way, take the lead. Ask questions and listen earnestly. I’ve never had a time when this was not reciprocated.

Honest transparency– Partners don’t need to know your dirty laundry or be included on your confidential correspondence, but they do need to know enough ‘insider information’ in order to serve you. If you’ve done your homework beforehand and chosen the partner carefully, you know you can trust them. They should be on the top of the list of disclosure – right after your team members. Don’t get me wrong, I encourage discretion. But be honest and explain the good, the bad, and the ugly. Chances are they can help and if nothing else, will offer support and prayer.

Clarify, clarify, clarify – From the very first conversation and at every step along the way, clarify. Look for clues that acknowledge your intent in communicating both verbally and in writing. Do the same for them. Repeat their expectations back to them. If you don’t get a response that looks a lot like, “Wow, you really understand what I’m saying!” then try again. Even if it feels absurd. Clarity is worth fighting for.

Don’t be afraid to pull the plug – Even great beginnings must have an end. If you sense things are winding down, work together with the partner to develop an exit strategy. Ideally, you both are sensing the timing is right and it’s time to move on. But frankly, this rarely happens. I don’t want to be Debbie downer, but because we all as human beings naturally avoid perceived ‘pain’ this usually doesn’t get going until after it’s too late. So what do you do? My advice would be to keep your ‘radar’ on and if you’re really on top of the above principles you may, if you’re lucky, handle this seamlessly. But in any case, you HAVE to be able to say when. If you’re someone who can’t handle pulling the plug, then you aren’t the right person to manage partnerships.

Well, that’s just about everything I know. I truly hope it’s helpful. One last caution… I’ve found that the word ‘partner’ means a lot of things to a lot of people. I haven’t looked it up for a number if official definitions but I’m certain that there are more than a handful. Use the term sparingly and you will protect yourself (and whoever you represent) from a lot of misunderstandings. And remember, very often, two really are better than one.

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