Relationship advice is easier to give than to follow. Sarah Kinkel is the Partnerships Manager in the UTS Innovation and Entrepreneurship Unit. She’s previously worked in both academic and collaborative roles at Yale University and Ohio University in the USA and is ready to share the mistakes she’s made so you don’t have to.

What’s a partnership?

A partnership can mean anything from a legal union to a fancy way of talking about distribution channels. At UTS, it generally means an agreement with an external organisation to collaborate in pursuit of a shared goal or values. 

For example, UTS has partnered with the Foundation for Young Australians because we’re both committed to developing good public outcomes around youth education, engagement and social entrepreneurship. We hope to collaborate on research, events, programming, and sharing our spaces.  

Partnerships keep us grounded and multiply the impact of everything we do, from research to teaching to empowerment.

Still, there’s partnerships on paper and partnerships that get stuff done. I’m not here to tell you exactly how to build a meaningful partnership, because there’s no perfect answer. But I can definitely tell you what not to do.

Treat it like a one-way street

Good partnerships have the same foundations as good personal relationships. They’re strongest, most fulfilling, and most successful when they’re mutually beneficial, when you both have a shared vision, an equal voice and trust. If it’s a one-way street, it’s not built for the long-term.

Comic with words 'you mean you care about the outcomes I want as a partner. Yes, this is OUR vision now'.

Give self-awareness a miss

You can’t know who you need as a partner until you know what you want to accomplish. You need to have a clear sense of your goals, what assets you have, and what you’re missing.

Most people don’t want to marry themselves: the ideal partner will have closely aligned values but will bring something to the table that you don’t. That could mean anything from business expertise or networks to funding or legitimacy.

Man sitting on chair alone with the words 'me'. Then man waiting at different chair with words 'waiting for the perfect partner'. Man standing alone in a different place with the words 'without knowing what I need'

Make someone else do your thinking for you

If you’re reaching out to a new potential collaborator, be prepared to clearly explain:

  • What you want from them? Is it cross-promotion? A jointly-organised program? A follow-up conversation?
  • What is the impact of your project? What’s the bigger picture about why they should care?
  • What’s in it for them? None of us has unlimited time or resources. Think about how what you’re proposing will help both the organisation and the individual person you’re approaching accomplish their own goals.

If you don’t have an answer for those questions, you need to do some more thinking.

'it looks like there might be some synergies in our work and I would like to connect' and 'I'd like to collaborate on this specific event, could we grab a coffee?'

Wing it

You’ve decided you’re going to do this thing together – great!

Get it in writing and be clear about who’s doing what, when and what success looks like. Do some trial engagements together before committing to a long-term strategic partnership. And then follow through on your end. Do what you promised you would do and be prepared to showcase the outcomes.

picture of girl looking at camera with burning building in the background and the words 'What MOU'? over the top

Let things fester

It helps to start on the right foot, but that doesn’t mean you can’t repair an existing partnership that’s lost its way. Strong lines of respectful and honest communication are critical to any long-term relationship.

You may need to sit down with clear eyes to talk about whether it’s that your goals have drifted, your capacity has changed, or someone’s just not pulling their weight. It won’t be easy, but ignoring it also won’t make it better.

Building meaningful partnerships isn’t complicated…but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. But if you’re clear about what you want to accomplish together and reliable in your follow through, you’ll be well on your way.