10% of your Partnerships are Costing More than they Produce:

Who they are and what to do about it

By Enette Pauze


Associations rely on a complex network of stakeholder relationships and more formalized partnerships in order to be successful. Many factors have contributed to the need for partners: innovation and adaptation to change have expanded the needs and expectations of members and funders, and the functioning of associations has become more complex with changes in laws and regulations and the evolution of technology. Partnering skills are so important that they have been included in the CSAE CAE core competencies (#44: strategic alliances and partnering) as of Fall 2016.

As a result, no association is doing it alone! But are they doing it with the right people and organizations? Our research consistently shows that a minimum of 10% of an organization’s existing partnerships should be dissolved immediately because they cost more than they produce (regardless of industry, size of the organization, or type of organization).

Why do leaders tend to accumulate or hold onto partnerships that should be dissolved? 

The justifications are as varied as the individuals and culture of an organization, but there are three common themes.

First, leaders make too many important assumptions early in the development of a strategic alliance or partnership. Assumptions might include that the partners agree on a shared purpose; the partners are truly interdependent; and that the work of the partnership has a direct impact on each partner’s’ strategic priorities. When we focus on the ‘how’ before the ‘why,’ we’ll end up lost on the journey.

Second, the need or purpose for the partnership has expired or has been fulfilled. Since there is often no exit strategy or discussion ahead of time outlining when or how the partnership will end, it fizzles out, lacking a distinct transition point. Avoiding a courageous conversation or a perceived conflict or tension, leaders will move onto higher priorities and let the relationship fade out, like they’re hoping for an accidental break-up.

Finally, few leaders take the time to measure or evaluate the performance of partnerships. This happens primarily for two reasons: there isn’t a partnership strategy in place that outlines when and how evaluation should take place; and leaders often lack the skills or awareness on how to conduct an efficient and pragmatic evaluation. Some associations are swamped in paper overload, and the thought of doing another evaluation just doesn’t appear a priority.  And unfortunately, partnership evaluations are often not integrated into existing evaluation strategies, making them seem like an unnecessary ‘add on.’

Symptoms of Poor Partnerships: Are your relationships an investment, or an expense? 

It’s not hard to spot the underperformers and most leaders can name them off the top of their head when asked. If you’re not sure – here are three big symptoms of a poorly functioning partnerships affecting engagement, decision-making and accountability.

  • Poor engagement: Might include partners not attending meetings or showing up unprepared, delays in communication (or absence of it), indifference towards goals or timeframes, and a lack of willingness to take on tasks or leadership roles.
  • Poor decision-making: Includes difficulties making timely decisions, revisiting or changing decisions without an ability to move forward, forcing decisions and overruling partners with an autocratic or dictator approach, or a lack of criteria for making critical decisions.
  • Poor accountability: Includes an inconsistency in performance, an unwillingness to be held accountable to others, vague responses when asked to clarify progress or results, and finger pointing (inability to assume responsibility).

If your partnerships are not having a direct impact on one or more of the association’s strategic priorities, why are you continuing to invest resources in maintaining the relationship? And if you are not measuring or tracking this, how would you even know a problem is brewing?

What is the impact of the bottom 10% of underperforming relationships?

Poorly functioning partnerships erode trust, respect and relationship capital – to the point that agreements, policies or governance structures are unable to hold the partnership together, or maintain performance in the longer term.

With the 80-20 rule (Pareto Principle), you could intuitively estimate that only 20% of the existing relationships in an organization are producing or contributing directly to 80% of the results. The challenge is that many organizational leaders are distracted by the 10-plus percent of poorly performing partnerships – spending more time in meetings, fixing mistakes, cleaning up after poor decisions, or managing tense relationships. This leaves little time, energy and resources to focus and invest on the 20% of high yield relationships. Leaders, staff and volunteers are left depleted, deflated and discouraged often saying, “Two steps forward; three steps back.”   Associations end up wasting scarce resources on the wrong strategies, structures, or processes. And ultimately, members are left questioning the value of their membership in part or whole (affecting retention and referrals).

If only one in 10 partnerships should be dissolved, some leaders are misled into thinking that they don’t need to waste their time letting go of these partners. This might be true if leaders were able to focus on their top performing partners, neutralizing the impact of underperformers.  But they don’t. It’s like having a sliver in your hand – most of your hand is working fine, but the discomfort of the sliver has your constant attention until it is removed.

You will never have enough resources to meet your objectives if you are unable to dissolve relationships (or practices) that are ineffective. Learning to let go of unsuccessful relationships will free up resources and bandwidth for higher priorities. Don’t fix the squeaky wheel, change it.

How do you deal with an underperforming partnership?

Dissolving relationships in a way that maintains respect and the future possibility of working together takes practice, and it isn’t something that leaders are taught formally or on the job. We teach leaders that a partnership either meets (or has potential to meet) the three critical criteria, or it is dissolved immediately.

Dissolving a partnership requires a stop, change, and start cycle – stop what you are doing, change it (refine the partnership to meet the criteria or let it go), and then re-start the next path of the relationship (either as partners or as colleagues).

  • Stop: Prioritize a conversation that stimulates dialogue (not debate) about the purpose of the partnership, its performance, and the need for it given existing or emerging priorities. It is not a conversation to have over email.
  • Change: Determine whether or not the partnership meets the three critical criteria. If not, determine how you might refine the relationship so that it does in a sufficient period of time.
  • Re-start: At this point you are determining whether you will continue the partnership, re-contracting a new relationship, or dissolving the partnership. Monitor your association’s trends and align with partners that address needs you can’t meet on your own.

There is a vast relationship ecosystem surrounding your association, and available to help you reach your objectives. One of the most important steps your organization can take is to dissolve partnerships that are costing more than they produce. This frees up important energy and resources that can be redeployed to meeting your priorities. It reduces confusion among staff when they are making decisions between competing and changing priorities. And it increases the integrity and inspiration of your organization’s mission.


Click here to download a free copy of the three critical criteria for value-based partnering.