The Right Path to Association Partnerships

By: Bryan Ochalla

There are plenty of good reasons to partner with another organization, but the process can still generate anxiety. Are you giving up too much? Is your agreement flexible enough to adapt to inevitable changes? Here's how a few associations handled the balancing act. (Titled "A Wise Connection" in the print edition.)

During a strategic planning meeting nearly two decades ago, the Credit Union Executives Society's (CUES) board of directors and senior staffers decided their association's mission should be to serve as the "professional development resource" for the credit-union movement. "The word resource was significant," says Barb Kachelski, CAE, senior vice president and chief operating officer for the Madison, Wisconsin-based association."It was meant to emphasize that we should not be the source."

At the same time, the decision makers at CUES determined that "partnering with best-in-class organizations [would allow us to be] far more effective in our providing service and value to members than we could be by developing all our offerings from scratch," she adds.

Since then, the 48-year-old association has formed numerous partnerships across North America, with consulting firms such as Scottsdale, Arizona-based Cornerstone Advisors, Inc., and Atlanta-based MNA Consulting, Inc., as well as educational institutions such as Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Toronto. It's also partnered with numerous associations and nonprofits, such as BoardSource, the California Credit Union League, and, most recently, the Risk and Insurance Management Society.

Learn More About Partnerships
The Power of Partnership, a collaboration between ASAE & The Center and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has additional insights into partnerships. For more, read "When and Why to Partner," a Q&A with Chelsea Killam, manager, research strategy for ASAE & The Center.

Those partnerships "keep us from having to recreate the wheel all the time," says Dawn Poker, CUES' senior vice president and chief learning officer. "Instead, we look for organizations that have already created it, and then we try to work with them to provide it to our members." Of course, CUES isn't alone in brokering partnerships, which can be as diverse and effective as the associations that pursue them.

Spreading the Word

Traditionally, associations have combined forces to exchange ideas, share employees and volunteers, and negotiate better deals with vendors and venues. Then there are the reasons the Atlanta-based Points of Light Institute and the Milwaukee-based Snow and Ice Management Association have each turned to partnerships.

According to Points of Light Institute CEO Michelle Nunn, for instance, her organization partnered with associations and nonprofits over the years to broaden and strengthen its base of volunteers. That has meant partnering with the Corporation for National and Community Service to hold the annual National Conference on Volunteering and Service and partnering with Boston-based City Year and Washington, DC-based Civic Enterprises to help advance a coalition called Service Nation that worked to pass bipartisan service legislation (the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act) last year.

Points of Light Institute also had a long history of collaborating with the Atlanta-based HandsOn Network before the two organizations merged in late 2007. "We engaged in broad volunteer service coalitions and appointed staff to work together on shared agenda items and with our overlapping affiliates," Nunn says. (See sidebar below for more on mergers versus partnerships.)

The Snow and Ice Management Association, on the other hand, started partnering with other associations about five years ago as part of an effort to expand its membership. "Partnerships are important when your association is small like ours and when you don't have regional, state, or local chapters," says Executive Director Martin Tirado, CAE. 

"We have five employees, and we cover an area of North America that goes from coast to coast, including Canada," he adds. "We just don't have the resources that many larger associations have. So, we have to be creative and do as much as we can with the limited resources at our disposal—and, sometimes, that means partnering with another association." 

More specifically, Tirado says, partnerships are an important avenue for member recruitment. "There's still a pretty sizeable group of people out there who don't know about us or who have heard very little about us," he says. "So the more we can partner with other organizations and provide their members with educational and other resources, the more those members will realize there's an association out there that focuses on the snow and ice industry." Among the associations with which SIMA has partnered thus far are Landscape Ontario, the New York State Turfgrass Association, and the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association.

Those associations and a handful of others were approached, Tirado explains, "because they are more mature (SIMA was founded just 13 years ago), they have a stable membership base, and they have a good reputation with those members."

Also, he adds, "Most of our members are in the lawn and landscape business in the warm weather months, so we naturally target associations in those areas when looking for partners."

Give and Take

Partnerships Versus Mergers

Since 1999, the Points of Light Institute has partnered with a number of like-minded associations and nonprofits. It has also merged with a number of associations and nonprofits, including New York City-based Children for Children and Atlanta-based HandsOn Network.

With Children for Children, Points of Light Institute CEO Michelle Nunn says, "We wanted to expand our youth service agenda and … [they] wanted to take their service program nationwide, but they did not want to have to create a new national infrastructure." Specifically, the founder and the executive director of Children for Children reached out to Nunn, who was CEO of HandsOn Network at the time, in early 2007. Unfortunately, HandsOn Network's organizational capacity was stretched thin, as it was in the final stages of negotiating its merger with Points of Light Foundation, and no partnership or merger resulted from the conversation.

The following year, the two organizations returned to the conversation. Shortly after, they entered into a letter of intent and began a due-diligence process. Early last year, the board of directors of Children for Children and Points of Light Institute resolved to create a single entity for all programming focused on service in the lives of young people. Assets from Points of Light, HandsOn Network, and Children for Children were combined into one programmatic hub located in New York City, intended to be the heart of all youth development and service-learning efforts for the Points of Light Institute. 

Of course, merging with another association or organization can be a more labor-intensive process than partnering with one, but Nunn says that "in the right circumstances, it can be a powerful way of achieving scale and impact."

That's not to suggest the alliances and partnerships SIMA has formed are rigidly defined. At least, they didn't start that way. In the case of its five-year-old partnership with Landscape Ontario, for instance, the relationship deepened and developed over time before it resulted in something that required more than a handshake.

In the early 2000s, SIMA began exhibiting at Landscape Ontario's major tradeshow free of charge (and vice versa). A few years later, Landscape Ontario decided to start a subcommittee (the Snow Commodities Group) and approached SIMA about being a part of it. The revenue-sharing agreement that resulted from those beginnings has served as a springboard to a number of other exchanges between the two associations. For example:

  • SIMA provides speakers for Landscape Ontario's Snow Symposium; Landscape Ontario, in turn, provides SIMA with an exhibit booth and a marketing presence.
  • SIMA hosts its Certified Snow Professional exam at Landscape Ontario's property for any of its Ontario-based members, provided they give advance notice.
  • Both associations advertise in each other's print publications and share news and editorial information.

That strategy is working well as of now, Tirado says. "Whenever we bring an education program [to one of our partners], we typically get a few new members out of it."

In the case of SIMA's partnership with Landscape Ontario, Tirado says he has seen a significant increase in SIMA's membership —"around 20 percent annual growth," he estimates—in the last few years as a result of the alliance. Additionally, Ontario is now SIMA's second-largest member state or province. "I'd definitely say we've noticed a direct correlation between the number of partnerships we've formed and the number of members we have," Tirado says.

If aligning and partnering with other associations is such a good idea, why aren't more associations doing it? Competition is one answer, says Nunn of the Points of Light Institute. "I think, understandably, a lot of [board members and staffers] feel a sense of pride and ownership when it comes to the organizations they lead," she says. "And sometimes those feelings can get in the way of shared identity or shared results."

Concerns about control and benefits can get in the way, too. "You have to look at the situation from all angles," says CUES' Poker. "You can't focus on who seemingly has the power in the partnership or who is going to make more money as a result of the partnership; you have to understand that there's an ebb and flow to partnerships and the reason you're partnering with a particular organization is that you believe the relationship is going to impact your association and your association's members in a positive way."

The financial aspects of a partnership can be the trickiest to manage, says Tirado. "You have to structure these sorts of things in such a way that you're not taking away or limiting the other association's revenue potential," he says. "You have to stay consistent with what's already in place, or you have to add to it in some way. If you can do that—if you can make things financially positive for both sides of the partnership—you'll get rid of a big hurdle that stands in the way of a lot of partnerships."

Just Enough Flexibility

The Snow and Ice Management Association has seen around 20 percent annual growth in membership as a result of its alliance with Landscape Ontario, and Ontario is now SIMA's second-largest member state or province.

Even if those hurdles are cleared, though, the partnership isn't guaranteed to thrive. Though some partnerships "just work," as Poker puts it, and require little to no nurturing, more often than not they need some assistance.

For instance, it helps if you "approach the situation with some intentionality," Nunn suggests. Forming a strong partnership "is a time-consuming process," she adds, "and you have to dedicate the proper amount of resources and time to it to achieve success."

Approaching the situation with varying amounts of rigidity and flexibility also can be important. Though Tirado says he and his staff tend to define their association's partnerships loosely, "we always outline, in contract form, what our association is going to offer and provide and what we expect the association we're partnering with to offer and provide."

"Of course, you have to write up and sign agreements and contracts for the larger pieces of a partnership," says Christopher Stevenson, CUES' director of professional development. "But that doesn't mean the relationship has to be completely rigid." CUES' partnership with the Risk and Insurance Management Society proves that point, he says. "There are times when I'll email my contact at RIMS and say, ‘Can we use such and such article from your risk-management magazine?' And you know what? They always let us use their content, as long as we cite it, with just a nod and a shake—because they know it's as good for their organization as it is for our membership."

Not all partnerships are so flexible, he adds, "but I think it definitely makes everyone's job—and life—easier when the partnership you form is not just a financial arrangement but an actual partnership that benefits both organizations in many ways."

Bryan Ochalla is a freelance writer based in Seattle and a former editor at CUES' Credit Union Management magazine. Email: [email protected]