Supporting Nonprofit Strategic Partnerships: An Opportunity for Better Communication

December 6, 2021

We are now nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, and the social impact sector continues to look for new ways to band together and provide necessary services and support to constituents. Strategic partnerships, in their various forms, allow nonprofits to create programs and diversify impact without taking on the burdens of a new project.

To better understand how both nonprofits and their grantmaking partners currently feel about strategic partnerships, the Mission Sustainability Initiative at Forefront released a survey to the Illinois social impact sector in August 2021. The survey asked respondents about any strategic partnerships they may have undertaken, what benefits they see from partnerships, and what role philanthropy plays in supporting such projects.

What we found was a disconnect: nonprofit leaders do not believe grantmakers will support strategic partnerships. Funders say otherwise.

 1. There was widespread agreement on the benefits of strategic partnerships from our nonprofit survey respondents.

84.1% of nonprofit leaders noted that their organization regularly considered strategic partnerships as an option to enhance and sustain mission impact, while 75% said their board members agreed with this assessment. Importantly, 81.4% of nonprofit leaders surveyed said they were comfortable discussing strategic partnership options with their board. At an organizational level, strategic partnerships appear to be welcomed and explored. The question is whether these discussions are extended to conversations between nonprofits and grantmakers. From the data, it seems this next step is potentially more fraught.

2. Nonprofits are generally unclear on whether funders are willing to support strategic partnerships.

Only 27.27% of the nonprofit leaders who responded to our survey agreed or strongly agreed that philanthropy/foundations provide adequate strategic partnership funding, with 29.55% disagreeing or strongly disagreeing with the statement overall. This discrepancy was even stronger across geography and sub-sectors, with organizations on the South and West Sides of Chicago agreeing to a smaller degree, and 50% of organizations working in community and economic development disagreeing with the statement.

Perhaps most importantly, 43.18% of respondents were neutral or did not know if the statement was true. At a minimum, there is uncertainty across nonprofit organizations about whether their funders, or any funders, would support them financially in their exploration of a partnership.

3. There is a disconnect in communication between grantmakers and nonprofits on funding strategic partnerships.

The few funders who did respond to our MSI survey were unequivocal that their organization supports nonprofit capacity building, and 90% agreed or strongly agreed that their foundation/organization considers strategic partnerships as capacity building and/or an option to enhance and sustain mission impact. This means there is a disconnect in communication between grantmakers and nonprofits on whether the former think strategic partnerships are something worth pursuing.

Clearly, more candid discussions need to be had to ensure that nonprofits understand where their funders stand on strategic partnerships, and grantmakers appropriately explain what kinds of mission-sustaining projects they are willing to fund.

The MSI aims to change the social impact sector’s culture and conversation around strategic partnerships, providing support, not pressure, to those interested in collaborations of all kinds. Part of this change requires grantmakers and grantees having honest conversations, and we work to facilitate those conversations in our regular convenings of the social impact sector.

We encourage nonprofit leaders to go to to learn more about the resources available for those looking to explore a strategic partnership. Grantmakers are always encouraged to join the MSI Funders’ Collaborative, a community of practice where strategic partnerships are supported, and join our events. You can learn more by contacting MSI Director Genita C. Robinson at


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