Top tips on forming, storming and norming partnerships

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As a Senior Associate in the Ventures team, my role has two key functions. Firstly, it’s my job to take the innovative work we do with our ventures and find new partners to invest, replicate, test and scale ideas. It’s also my job to listen! In the last 3 months I have been forming new partnerships, updating existing relationships and identifying gaps in our long list of friends to scale up our social impact through our Ventures programmes. Our partners come from all sectors and range in breadth from individuals right through to some of the largest companies in the world. My below top ten tips are a mix of guidance from others, genuine nuggets on how I carry out this work and ideas on how I can improve my own style.

1. Opening doors is great, but if you don’t close a few all you create are drafts (inspired by Stuart Thomason)

There are always exciting event invites (and some not so exciting event invites) where you think you will get the opportunity to build new partnerships but there is a fine balance to make, between the number of partnership opportunities you open and the number you close (i.e. turn into agreed partnerships). Identify your priorities and close those deals!

2. Do your research

I never go into a meeting with someone new without having done my research. Websites are usually a good start but that’s never enough. Check for news stories, look at their recent activities, and check social media. Understand local politics, egos and how people are linked together but don’t get bogged down by them. – I always find this useful when working in local/regional partnerships, particularly where my understanding of the politics helps put a potential partner at ease. In professional circles I always find LinkedIn to be a great tool. I recently formed a great relationship with a leading corporate on the basis we had the same lecturer at university but 20 years apart!

3. Don’t make it all about money!

At least not at first. I’ve seen many partnerships fall at the first hurdle when the ‘ask’ is blinded by the need to raise money. This is where the listening comes in. It’s important to be honest – if your proposal needs money then make that clear, but don’t forget the number one rule of listening to their needs and potential interest first! Some of the most innovative people I might not get our support because I can’t get a word in (my team will find this hard to believe). Whilst some partners might have the ambition to support you but not the cash, you never know who is in their network and who else might be encouraged to support you.

4. Be armed with real facts

Be armed with real examples of successful outcomes and be ready to introduce them to people who can back your claims. It helps if you have invested time in promoting these facts in the first place on your social networks, websites and other marketing. If something didn’t work the way you planned, don’t be afraid to say you got it wrong! It’s how you evidence your learning from these mistakes that will put the potential partner at ease.

5. Know your style

Partnerships often fail when you go into the first meeting pretending to be something you’re not. I am well known for being the least dapper male dresser at the Young Foundation – this doesn’t stop me getting corporates, often head to toe in overly warm uncomfortable formal wear, to agree that the idea and vision I am presenting them is one they should get on board with! I like to have a slightly informal style which puts people at ease. This is normally achieved because of the research done before the meeting, dropping in names of people and projects that they know and trust. Accept that they won’t always like your style – but remember you are part of a team!

6. Test your pitch on others first

I’m always learning. What works with one potential partner doesn’t mean it will work for all. I always check in with those who know my style and product to make sure ensure that I am presenting it accurately.. It’s also really important to accept when you aren’t the best placed team member to deliver a pitch and to hand it over to the right person! The end goal is the partnership, not the glory in making it happen.

7. Invest time

Once you have opened a door, set yourself clear expectations on when you think you can close it. Some partnership building is about getting to know each other, sharing best practice and finding a common ground in your vision, learning style and ambitions – so if you don’t need to rush it, take time. You don’t rush your partner up the altar on the first date, and in my experience those who do tend to end up in divorce proceedings quite quickly.

8. Use social networks

Twitter is my number one business development tool. You might be worried that tweeting about a meeting will lead to others seeing an opportunity to get in with your potential partner first, but I’ve found tweeting at an organisation or individual to say I am looking forward to meeting a particular person to talk about whatever the topic of the meeting is often leads to information sharing from that person and others that know them. It also gives me a great ice breaker for the start of my first meeting. Potential partners have started four meetings this year talking about my dad and how he communicates with me on twitter about football… all four led to partnerships. For every tweet I send about a meeting I get an average of 10 emails from other individuals interested in what I am doing!

9. Think about your meeting location

Coffee and cake is always a good suggestion but think about where you meet for the first time. Skype is a wonderful tool but it never beats visiting potential partners and seeing their social impact (if travelling distance and cost is reasonable). With our partnerships I either look to visit their offices first or I find a calming venue that has something about it that we will both remember. (I have another top ten list of meeting places with the best cake!)

10. The art of the follow up

It’s really easy to get caught up in the excitement of meeting new potential partners so I always follow up with an email on the day of the meeting to make sure we are clear on expectations, next steps and to give them something official they can forward on to other colleagues they need toengage in the conversation.

If you are interested in partnering with the Ventures team at the Young Foundation or you simply want to agree, challenge or share your own top tips for partnership feel free to tweet @tony_colville@YFVentures or @the_young_fdn.


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