Over the last decade there has been growing interest in building strategic alliances, and when it comes to partnering, associations have a natural advantage.
According to one US membership expert, the purpose of an association is “to build a community” and this is often achieved by bringing people together to meet, discuss and collaborate, so facilitating co-operation is a core-competence for many associations. Compare this to the commercial sector. With 50% of alliances being formed by traditional competitors, and ownership and acquisition being the more traditional route for achieving growth, forming alliances has been very challenging to their culture.
So you can use this natural advantage to achieve many objectives, including membership growth.
Potential partners can range from other associations, other not-for-profit organizations, public bodies to commercial suppliers.
One of the first steps in looking for partners to help recruit is to research the natural triggers or situations that new members find themselves in just before they are likely to show interest in joining. Who are they talking to? Can you find a logical opportunity for that third party to introduce you to them?
Professional associations could consider a link-up with recruitment agencies: The trigger for the prospective member is interest in finding a new job. When they apply to the agency, on their application form, there is a section for them to highlight memberships to professional associations. If the applicant indicates they are not a member, there is a tick box for them to request information about the association. This benefits the recruitment agency because it indicates their involvement in the community and benefits the applicant because they find out more about the community and what association has to offer.
Professional associations can also partner with educational institutions: The trigger is the need to study a topic as part of a syllabus. If the association provides the teachers or lecturers with a resource pack, this can contain links and references to additional material available directly from the association.
Trade associations can link-up with professional service providers: A trigger could be a decision to grow the business. The association provides a resource pack that third party service providers can hand out to clients that are looking to move from one stage in its business cycle to the next. In the pack, there is a direct link to the trade association for the provision of complimentary services it can provide to assist with the growth process.
A charity group could consider working with health professionals: Consider the unfortunate trigger of ill health. A patient comes in for treatment and receives a leaflet highlighting the free resources available to members of the public on the association web site where they find out about membership. What about including membership as part of the treatment? In recent years there has been talk of overweight people getting membership to a slimming club on the NHS via referrals from GPs and NHS trusts.
A link between estate agents and recreational associations: When someone new to the area buys a property, they could provide a friendly welcome pack showing all the clubs they can join in the area.
Many associations could consider commercial suppliers: The trigger is the need for a specific product or service. Customers are offered a special rate if they are a member of an association and the price differential encourages non-members to join up. Natural partners here include exhibition organizers and training providers. In the US, a golf buggy provider offered golf clubs a special rate if they were members of the National Golf Course Owners Association, and this provided the Association with a significant number of new members every year. In a supplier partnership, the supplier brings the association leads for new members, and the association brings the supplier credibility.
Mapping out the personal and business development pathways which people and organizations typically travel on, helps you uncover partners who would make natural introducers.
Alliances can also be used to help you grow membership in other ways.
Having a well defined partner selection process is very important because you will need to be open and transparent about your decision making, particularly if you are choosing between competing suppliers in the sector. If you consider that a truly strategic alliance will last from ten to fifteen years, then you need to be confident in who you have selected!
Start with a clear list of search criteria for example, they need to have been involved in successful partnerships before, and use desk research to generate a list of possible partners.
Next schedule a series of face-to-face meetings. The rule of thumb is you are looking for two to four times the number of partners than you need. At the meeting some of the areas to explore are verifying the facts, identifying the stakeholders, clarifying the issues, evaluating the options for action and the action steps. Also review the quality of their project management skills.
The characteristics to look for in a partner are a good strategic and cultural fit, a complimentary vision and mission. Once you have established connectedness and personal chemistry, you need to conduct due diligence of competency and character.
The next step is likely to be a board or senior management meeting. It is ideal if both parties demonstrate to each others satisfaction, a sound knowledge of each others history, working practices, long term direction, the mutual benefits and how partnering works. Also, is your management style compatible?
When selecting, you are looking for a complementary arrangement, so your skill sets are strong in areas where the other partner is weak.
It is useful to be aware of some of the common difficulties and pitfalls, and early warning signals, so you can have a plan of action if they occur. Know what the exit plan is before you start and under what conditions either party can withdraw.
Here are four to consider:
The wrong collaboration can have serious long term detrimental effects, so if you are unsure, work with them on a small project together until you get to know each other better. A good idea is to start with a simple alliance and then move towards a more complex arrangement. The longer the arrangement, the more it needs to be formalized.
In the future partnering and alliances will continue to grow because they enable you to achieve more with less and move faster. They give you access to new skills, products and services that would otherwise take a considerable time to grow or acquire. They also help you limit your financial risk and keep your overheads down.
This article was published in Membership Today in December 2006