The Joy of a Promiscuous Partnership Philosophy

17th November 2023

Global Association Hubs’ International Advisor Martin Sirk argues that associations would benefit from a more uninhibited and broadminded approach to their strategic relationships.

Of all the conference formats I’ve facilitated, none is more eye-opening and intellectually humbling than a “wisdom of crowds” workshop. The collective knowledge of a group of competent professionals is inevitably far greater than that of even the most expert speaker. On three occasions during the last few years, I have given roomfuls of international association leaders the task to identify as many different components and dimensions of “partnerships” as they can realistically imagine, and the aggregated results demonstrate that few associations are even scratching the surface of what is possible.

Why do so many associations insist on going it alone, or on only giving partnership relationships an occasional fling? One hypothesis is that partnerships are seen as secondary activities, nor central – tactical rather than strategic – and associations have no default process for always considering partnership as part of their decision-making. There is also the fear of losing control, influence, or visibility. But all too frequently, there is simply a lack of imagination: the right questions have never been asked. 

Whatever the reason, the reality today is that every association can improve performance by increasing its range of collaborative activities. And the beauty of a more promiscuous partnership philosophy is that it doesn’t require massive new budgets or capital investment, it simply requires an expanded way of thinking about four key dimensions*: 
A. The objectives, challenges and projects that could benefit from working with others
B. The full range of potential partners
C. The assets that can be allocated to generate partnership value
D. The constraints and fears that prevent partnerships from working

A. Objectives, challenges & projects
The starting point here is to critically analyse all the activities your association is currently carrying out, and those that were desirable but have had to be rejected for one or more reasons, asking the simple question: what might be possible if we weren’t attempting to do this on our own? New events and novel content, stronger advocacy, additional audiences, shared (and therefore reduced) overhead costs and risks, more extensive research and forecasting, missing skillsets overcome – all these and more are achievable for the same or lower cost. 

The catch is, wherever you decide to enter into a partnership, you are also sharing the rewards: the outcomes are “ours”, not “mine”! This is why it’s so vital to determine where the association genuinely cannot afford to share the limelight. Some partnerships should be temporary, or constrained by geography (for example: “compete in Europe, collaborate in Asia”); some can be with a single partner, others a larger group; some can change the nature of your governance or management practices, others are almost entirely risk-free for the rest of your enterprise. You don’t need to pick just one partnership model in perpetuity, the range of options is almost unlimited.  

B. Potential partners
Other associations are obvious candidates, even bitter rivals (provided you can carefully define the parameters of your collaboration). So too are companies that are currently being treated as sponsors or exhibitors or advertisers: almost all will react positively to a deeper, less transactional proposal. But have you considered universities or research institutions, bloggers and podcasters, IT suppliers and potential office space sharers? It’s really sensible to consider all of the interested parties in the destinations where you will be holding future major events, from citizen groups to policymakers to start-up communities – but bear in mind that some destinations are much more geared up than others to help you forge these relationships, including the Global Association Hubs cities: Brussels, Dubai, Singapore and Washington DC. 

Here’s a simple idea to lift the spirits of all your team members: partner with a local art college to design unique and inspiring artwork for your office walls that reflects your mission or community. And one of the biggest untapped sources of partnership could be hiding in plain sight: your own members, whose skills, resources, and connections are almost certainly being under-utilized. 

C. Assets
What can you offer potential partners? What skills or resources are you missing? Both sides of the equation are equally important, and both deserve a detailed audit and creative thinking. Associations frequently underestimate the potential value of assets that they take for granted: their communication channels, their circles of trust and established relationships, their staff skillsets, their cultural know-how. 

It’s also rare that associations carry out a detailed investigation of their potential partners’ weaknesses or gaps, but that is where your own assets have the greatest potential impact and value, and where you have the strongest negotiation leverage. Always ask this open-ended question after the deal looks ready to go ahead: “Are there any additional assets that either of us can throw into the mix that will make this partnership even more valuable?”

D. Constraints & fears

Entering into a partnership relationship without an ‘eyes wide open’ awareness of all the factors that could prevent it from succeeding is a very unwise move. Every new partnership is an experiment and leap of faith, and just like opening a business or entering a marriage, there are no guarantees that it will work out after the honeymoon period. 

Have you considered the personalities of the key players who will need to work together? Are you making changes in an area where some of your members have an emotional attachment? Do both partners have meaningful ‘skin in the game’? Is enough cash on the table to achieve the stated objectives? Is there even a shared understanding of the partnership’s goals, or a good alignment of values and culture? 

Before running three workshops on this subject, I had considered myself a very experienced partnership practitioner, with dozens of projects under my belt, confident that I could easily identify the most important issues under each of these four headings. Afterwards I felt deflated by my overconfidence and hubris! The delegates came up with literally dozens of extremely relevant examples and options I had not even considered. I’m now confident that my extensive checklists are still incomplete and missing many important ideas, but at least they are a starting point for any association wanting to take this issue seriously, and to put partnerships at the centre of their strategic decision-making process.

*Boardroom is publishing as an addendum to this article the full checklists created from these workshops. Get them here.

Global Association Hubs, a partnership between Brussels, Dubai, Singapore and Washington DC, is committed to promoting the societal value of international associations, and to stimulating the discussion of important issues through events and articles such as this, which appears as part of a collaborative partnership with Boardroom.

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