4.2 Elements of a Successful Partnership

“Leverage small wins to demonstrate proof of concept and deepen productive relationships. While it’s important to dream big, small successes can go a long way towards making collaboration practiced and easy.”

— Coalition to Advance Learning in Archives, Libraries and Museums1

“Communicate often and very far ahead of time.”

— Librarian at a western urban library

New partnerships will always have an element of the unknown for both you and your partner, which may be stressful for both of you.1 As a rural midwestern library worker admitted frankly, “It’s always a bit nerve-wracking the first couple of times that we have a partner in ‘cause you make your follow-up calls, you do what you can, and then you find out how things go. And either they’re excellent or….” The following strategies will increase the odds of an “excellent” partnership.

Successful partnerships rely on...
InvestmentAll partners should be engaged in the collaboration and invested in its success. Some partners may be more or less involved, depending on their resources and what they bring to the project, but they should be committed to the role they have agreed to play.
TrustRelationships are the connectors between community assets. Building trust takes time but will make future partnerships easier and smoother.1 Starting out with small projects with a new partner can help build the foundation for larger collaborations in the future.
CommunicationCommunication is a key element in working successfully with a partner, whether that partner is an individual or an established organization. Make sure roles, expectations, and schedules are clear. Keep in mind that the people you work with may not be familiar with the terms libraries use to describe their programs and patrons, or they may use the same terms in different ways. Cross-training between organizations can help each understand and learn from each other’s unique perspectives and experiences. 
UnderstandingEstablish clear roles, responsibilities, and requirements for each partner. Include details like who will organize project meetings, provide staff for events, or develop the marketing campaign. For instance, co-marketing is valuable to both partners, but make sure you agree on which materials will be branded or co-branded early on in the process.1
Make sure you both understand what is needed to fill your roles successfully. For instance, if your partner is interested in using your space for an activity, make sure you fully understand their requirements—a dance troupe may require a particular type of flooring, and a technology workshop may need certain software. If your space is unstructured and HOMAGO-based, and your partner is used to a classroom setting—or vice versa—you may need to help your partner adapt their approach.
Shared vision and goalsWhether your joint effort is big or small, you and your partner should agree on what the collaboration is meant to achieve. Determine what success looks like by planning your evaluation strategy together (see the module on Assessment & Evaluation). If you are not pulling in the same direction, the partnership may fail. 

Partnership Best Practices

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) relies heavily on partnerships to coordinate help and services all over the world. From a wealth of experience, they developed a list of partnership best practices, some of which are listed below:

  • Understand each partner’s point of view
  • Learn from each other
  • Commit jointly to excellence and improvement
  • Commit to transparency and information sharing
  • Look for synergy (making the whole greater than the sum of its parts)
  • Approach all interactions with your partner with a win-win perspective
  • Communicate in all directions 
  • Plan together and solve problems together
  • Respect each other’s expertise
  • Define roles, standards and limits and agree to respect them
  • Commit to whatever training is needed

For the full list and a discussion of each best practice, see Partnership: An operations management handbook for UNHCR’s partners. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2003).


1: Best Practices in Collaboration. Coalition to Advance Learning in Archives, Libraries and Museums, 2016.