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Navigating Partnerships and Saying No

Forming partnerships can be challenging, but so is negotiating for support after a relationship has formed. Because negotiating doesn’t come natural to the untrained it can be awkward. Hearing the term negotiations may conjure images of a high stakes situation with a hostage negotiator talking down an armed gunman may, but negotiating isn’t always so extreme. Whether or not we know it, we all form relationships and negotiate deals in life. These negotiations range from who in the family is assigned chores, to buying a new car at a dealer down the street. It’d behoove non-profit professionals to hone their negotiation skills for those times they're navigating relationships with supporters. While taking certain measures when negotiating can help, understand that it won’t guarantee a success every time. More importantly though, recognize that when all's said and done, if what’s being offered is a bad deal for your organization, you can always respectfully say no.

Fight the urge to say yes:

When representing a privately funded organization, It’s easy saying yes when receiving offers of support in the form of time (volunteers) or money. You need to fight that urge. It’s better to have fewer of better suited volunteers or correct type of funding than it is to have the wrong type of either. In instances where you receive the wrong volunteers, you’ll waste time training and equipping people who will likely fall short of the task because they lack the know-how or drive. Similarly, when receiving the wrong type of in-kind donation you’ll spend more time finding another home for those items you can’t use. Monetarily, if a donor limits funding to “programs,” it may not cover the cost of the necessary support apparatus like information technology, infrastructure or staffing salaries. Those same support structures if non-existent would leave the funded programs in ruins.

So why accept an offer of support that doesn’t help meet your mission? Answers I hear often include, “they were well intentioned,” “they might not offer us anything again if I had said no,” or my favorite yet, “they give us a lot of money, we can’t say no to them,” as if them giving money by default makes you hostage to their demands. You’re only a hostage if you allow it.

Seek mutually beneficial relationships:

When forging relationships with others that have an internal locus of control, it’s critical to seek aligning your organization with those who share the same values. When exploring shared interests related to volunteerism, this may come with ease as employee engagement is an obvious connection. On a deeper level, the more shared values both parties identify, the more creative both can be in finding solutions. Having shared interests and goals will eliminate the potential of being taken advantage of, strong armed, or manipulated. Both parties will be better positioned to work towards the same end goals. This creates authenticity from the onset, mitigating risks of a partner forming the relationship as a public relations or marketing stunt. This allows the formation of a more perfect union.

How non-profits can protect themselves while creating a “win-win” scenario:

Assess the relationship and understand your needs versus what’s being offered. Regardless of the offer (good or bad), don’t make decisions when emotionally charged. Humans instinctively go into “fight or flight” mode if threatened or intimidated, hindering one’s ability to rationalize. Having an extreme of any single emotion puts you at a disadvantage while reaching a mutually beneficial consensus. When worrying or afraid, you may risk putting yourself in a position of being too accommodating. This may result in accepting conditions that you would've otherwise rejected. Let’s take a look at a few ways to cover your bases when you’re feeling intimidated.

  • Avoid setting a bottom line. Establishing a bottom line may help save you from forming alliances not well suited for your interests, but it also limits your imagination. With a bottom line, if talks go south, both parties can end up walking away as losers having failed to invent a solution in the interest of both parties. Avoid a “tit for tat” battle that leaves both sides digging into their positions by thinking more creatively. Ask yourself “what if they offer less than I want?” or “what if they propose something else?” Knowing the likely course of action ahead of time will prepare you in exploring multiple outcomes. Think in terms of chess, not checkers. The better your alternative when negotiating, the easier it is to say “no.”

  • Work multiple angles and form options. Similar to bidding on contracts or diversifying revenue streams, having options creates flexibility that prevent you from being cornered or forced into a bad position. For example, think about the scenario of buying a car. You’ve done research on a specific make and model. Now think about walking onto that car lot to negotiate a price with a salesman. Pause for a second and Imagine that same negotiation with two or three other offers on the same year and model car. Take this same approach with regards to potential volunteers. Diversify your pool of volunteers and seek engagement from several different outlets. Work several angles at the same time, understanding that a specific group may be a better fit than another. Have a Plan B and a Plan C. This will offer padding in the event that support from one pool of resources falls through.

  • Have data to backup claims. Work to negotiate on merit rather than a position that forces both sides to give concessions. In this case, as a non-profit organization, the merits include the facts and data proving your organization produces the results you claim. Work to monitor outcomes and evaluate impact. Showcase the positive impact for those getting involved. Show them the return on investment for their brand and stakeholders.

  • Focus on mutual interests. Find out why this partner wants to engage. Is this supposed to be team building? Is this cause marketing with a public relations angle? Are they looking for more than a “one and done”; a more strategic long term partner? These things matter and will help you find middle ground. When partnering with an entity that shares social values, the match can sometimes make itself with minimal effort. This will better ensure you receive the support necessary for your organization while benefiting your partner by demonstrating their commitment to the community.

  • Research based engagement. Most companies and organizations have publicly available information highlighting their values. Put yourself in their shoes and determine the “why” and “why not” of partnering with you. This will help you better identify the motivations, options and why they didn’t consider other decisions. Identifying mutual interests will help you communicate the return on investment for their brand. It’ll also be easier to strike an emotional chord with their employees, as most employees align themselves with companies that harbor their values as people.

  • Be honest and transparent. When a company expresses interest and desire to support the organization, be honest about the true requirements you have. If what they’re interested in offering doesn’t support your mission, be honest and tell them your thoughts. If they decline, then one of two things are true; either they really don’t have an interest to support, or you failed to communicate why their support would be beneficial to your organization and their company. If it’s a case of bad timing, remember them and reach out if something they’re looking for surfaces.

Let reality set in:

Most corporations are wholesome and authentic, wanting what’s best for the non-profit they’re serving. But let's face it, there are some whose primary goal is cause marketing to drive up customer and public perception. This may be a result of a company saving face after a scandal, a rebranding, or even pure greed by capitalizing on social virtues. There are also companies that just don’t know what they don’t know. In these instances large corporations have perceived power because they possess the sought after resources. The reality is that they do hold most of the cards. But you have the power to say no.

We’ve all heard the saying “beggars can’t be choosers." While I've been of that mindset for some time, I've adjusted my position. I’m here to tell you that in every instance you do have a choice. You can choose to say no. Don’t believe me? Recently, Black Girls Code, a non-profit organization missioned to empower women of color in the digital space, turned down $125,000 from Uber. While Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant said that the decision was layered, she also believed Uber’s gesture was disingenuous given the companies history around allegations of sexual harassment. It’s safe to say the rejection of money was due in part because Uber’s social values don’t reflect those of Black Girls Code. Understand saying no to donations of time and money may come with consequences. In this case, however, Black Girls Code turned down Uber’s check and went to raise even more than what was originally offered.

There are always steps to take when seeking that elusive middle ground and acquiring needed resources. These steps should be taken to help protect yourself. But organizations seeking partnerships shouldn’t be afraid to take an even bolder stance if warranted. In the long run it may save time and money. In the case of Black Girls Code, a mutual partnership wasn’t being pursued, however, by rejecting Uber’s money they demonstrated a steadfastness to their moral principles and social integrity. The lesson here is understanding that you can always say no.

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