Should our association partner with another association for our meeting?
Partnerships can indeed be wonderful. You’ve heard the old sayings: “1 + 1 = 3.” “It’s a win – win.” “Two minds are better than one.”
Emotionally, partnerships are particularly attractive. You don’t have to go it alone. You share the risks. You combine resources. What could be better? You can already envision the post-conference meeting in which you pat each other on the back in celebration of your brilliant success.
No doubt, given the right partners and a strong execution, partnering with another association has the potential to give your association meeting a huge boost in attendance, prestige and revenue. It’s very appealing.
However, before you jump at the first partnership that comes along, keep this in mind: Partnerships are often built out of weakness.
Weakness? That takes some of the polish off the partnership concept, doesn’t it? However, it’s true. While partnerships are often equal in a formal sense, in reality, they are often quite un-equal.
Rather than a simple “win – win” situation, partnerships sometimes result in a “big winner” and a “little winner.” Indeed, partnerships sometimes result in a winner and a loser.
Given all of the positive press about partnerships, how can this be? It’s really quite simple. The lack of equality in a partnership has its genesis in the partners themselves. To borrow from another saying, “Unequal in, unequal out.” If both associations in a partnership aren’t exactly the same, which is a safe bet, they stand to gain different things from a partnership.
For example, if you manage a strong association with increasing membership, and you partner with a weaker association that has declining membership, what could happen? Will the weaker association benefit more because it gains credibility from partnering with you, while you gain little in that regard? Or, if you share similar membership types, will the weaker association decline even more quickly because its members learn more about your association, joining it in place of their current association? You’ll notice that these questions have nothing to do with the contractual sharing of responsibility or revenue. That is what makes partnerships more complex and unpredictable than most parties understand.
The dirty little secret about partnerships is that great fanfare is made when the partnership begins, but the breakup is usually done quite quietly. How many long term, ongoing partnerships can you recall off the top of your head? Probably not many. Even those that are incredibly successful often evolve over time. In an extreme example, one partner may absorb or purchase the other.
If you are considering a partnership, the key is to make sure that your association is not placed at a disadvantage contractually or otherwise. If there is to be a big winner, make sure it is you.
Before you enter a partnership for your association, ask yourself these questions:
- Why does our association seek a partnership?
- Or seen from the other side, why does the other association interested in this partnership?
- Is it out of weakness?
- Is it for convenience?
- The key question: Could our association achieve the same objective ourselves by doing something else?
- Is there truly synergy in this association partnership?
- Do we have proof that the benefits of this partner for our association are real?
- If we could choose any other partner in this particular area, would we still choose this partner?
- If not, is this partner still an acceptable choice for our association?
The key question: Are we making the best choice, or are we settling for just any partner?
If the answers to these questions puts you at ease, consider one last safeguard: make the partnership very short term. If the partnership meets or surpasses your association’s expectations, you can negotiate a continuation of the relationship. Even then, build in periodic reviews so your association can be assured that it is meeting its objectives in the most effective way.
On the other hand, if the partnership is problematic, a very short term commitment will give you latitude for a quick exit. With pre-planning and periodic reviews, the exit will hopefully be painless.
So, yes, association partnerships can be wonderful. But partnerships are often built out of weakness. It’s important to assess the appropriateness of the partnership carefully, both inside and outside the contract. Just as importantly, you should have a graceful exit strategy pre-planned in case things don’t go well.