Part 2/2: Four qualities that make a relationship work and how to put them into practice.

Read Part 1.

If charity digital services are to keep growing, then relationships between charities and digital agencies need to grow too. 

Last year we spent a lot of time with charities and digital agencies learning more about what makes a great partnership. We also explored the barriers and how people were overcoming them.

As we aggregated the data four interrelated qualities emerged. They declared themselves important for ensuring productive relationships:

  1. Open and clear communication — honest, regular, connected
  2. Trust and fit — rapport, transparency, delivering
  3. Mission alignment — common purpose, user-focus, expectations
  4. Flex and mutual learning — mindset, upskilling, transformation

1. Open and clear communication

In interviews we heard that open communication was core to positive relationships. And though open and clear communication may sound obvious, we also found it wasn’t often put into practice.

When it was practised, charities and agencies told us it made them feel part of one team and invested in one mission. They felt able to act as mutual sources of support and share problems as well as successes.

In practice open and clear communication looked like:

  • Issuing good briefs
  • Sharing regular updates
  • Clear documentation
  • Raising issues as soon as they occur

It also included working out costings together so there were no awkward money conversations mid-project.

This meant a lot of honest conversations on both sides and, ‘asking lots of questions until there are no more questions to ask’. At best, it resulted in having a partner invested in the organisation: ‘someone I could turn to’.

How to open up communication

  • Keep talking — as you get to know each other; at regular catch ups; anytime something doesn’t feel right; anytime you are stuck.
  • Draft a record of everything discussed in your first meeting, including the agreed approach. This kind of loose Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) can be iterated as the project develops. It will keep track of what’s agreed and where you’re heading. You can also share it across teams to make sure the understanding reaches everyone involved.
  • Circle back — if more questions arise after your initial meeting and MOU, note them down and ask them. Assume nothing.

2. Trust and fit

We heard how ‘getting the right fit’ between charities and agencies was important for laying a foundation of trust. Some charities wanted people with experience of their way of working. Some took recommendations from trusted sources. Others started developing rapport through informal coffee and chats.

When they got started both partners built their understanding of each other’s skills, process, strengths and needs.

One charity told us: “Trust is absolutely key. Sometimes with fast-turnaround projects you just have to put your trust in them.” Working together on rapport and shared understanding builds this trust.

How to identify fit and build trust

Start with an informal getting-to-know-you conversation to learn more about each other. Share goals, hopes and fears for the work you might do together. Questions to ask:

  • What would you like to achieve through our work together: for you personally; for the group we serve; for your organisation?
  • What are your hopes & fears for this project? This could be related to process, ambition, resources — whatever comes to mind.

Ask and answer these four questions to find out if you’re a good fit:

  • What’s your best experience of working with an agency/charity?
  • What made it great?
  • What challenges did you have in past partnerships?
  • How did you overcome them?

Then test out working together in a small way, such as by holding a one-off workshop.

For full transparency share:

  • Payment schedules
  • Rate cards
  • Your financial and delivery commitments relating to the project

3. Mission alignment

What we heard from digital agencies is how much they want to work with charities. Some of the best relationships developed when agencies felt excited about a charity’s mission. Agencies wanted the chance to do purposeful work, solve interesting problems and make a social impact.

Good mission alignment accelerates relationship creation and leads to more successful projects. It’s nurtured through user-led and test-driven approaches that keep beneficiaries front of mind.

At the same time, partners need to manage expectations of what can be achieved within time and budget. This keeps the work in scope. Aware partnerships asked early on about each other’s resource limitations. They used milestone reviews to stay focused on achievable goals and the overall mission.

How to achieve mission alignment

  • Spend time finding a partner who is excited about your mission. Join Digital Charities Slack channel to post questions and ask for recommendations.
  • Keep focused on creating value for the people or cause you’re collectively working towards. Restate this focus at the start of catch-ups and share regular stories about the people or cause. Keep referring to your project plan and MOU to avoid mission creep. Resist going too far down ‘the extra mile’ route and stay focused on what you can achieve within time and budget.

4. Flex and mutual learning

We learned that partnerships always required both partners to do three things together:

  • Learn new skills
  • Adapt to new contexts and processes
  • Flex their normal rhythm and pace of work.

Partnerships worked best when both partners acknowledged this and were keen to learn from each other. They asked questions and took a coaching or training approach. They also learnt by doing together e.g. creating mixed design teams of digital and frontline staff.

The need to flex can also be an exciting catalyst for growth. One agency told us that tight budgets can push innovation and lead to streamlining, prioritising and novel adaptations.

Navigating differences and change can also be uncomfortable for both parties.

How to flex and learn together

  1. Go into the partnership confident in what you know and can share. Be confident in your partner’s expertise, and open to learning from them. Our playbook’s ‘Mindset’ section offers useful advice here.
  2. Establish occasional brown bag lunches - online or in person. This is an opportunity to come together informally, with one person delivering light touch learning through storytelling, such as ‘How we became comfortable with uncertainty’. Alternate between charity and agency. Vary learning topics.
  3. Ask questions and take notes about each other’s working rhythms, sign off processes and decision makers. Design your own rhythm for your project. Base this on your goal, approach, capacity and resources.
  4. Build in a mutual coaching relationship between a key team member from each party. This will help both parties develop new skills.

Hard to follow, but worth it

These four interrelated qualities spoke loudest from our research. They aren’t especially radical and yet we know they can be hard to follow — our research told stories of the negative impact on projects and partnerships when these qualities weren’t present.

More resources for great partnerships

Here’s some reading and resources that will help get your partnerships working well:

Hat tip to Matthew McStravick for his work on the original version of this article.

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