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Every partnership evolves and ends, eventually. Reasons for adapting on concluding a partnership include not only fulfillment of the original purpose or goal(s) of the partnership (including attainment of conservation outcomes), but also shifts in the priorities of partners and changes in whether partners remain a right fit. When you anticipate and plan well for the evolution or end of a partnership, the change can take place on a high note. You can celebrate, recognize accomplishments that would not have been possible alone, and you may even have plans for the next collaboration already underway. This section will help you navigate planning for and implementing the redefinition or the conclusion of a partnership:

Why Plan for the End?

The most successful partnerships are the ones that do not resist change by trying to keep the partnership in a fixed format, but instead accept and manage change as a key element in their approach.

Talking about the end point at the beginning of a new partnership can be uncomfortable or feel unnecessary, but when an exit plan is not broached partners can end up with different assumptions and expectations about the lifespan of their collaboration. Instead of ending on a high note with a plan for sustaining outcomes, the project can disband in tension, disagreement and lost opportunity.

Ideally, your original partnership agreement should include a provision for periodic assessment of the partnership (see section 5), as well a plan for exiting or redefining the relationship, and those two things should be tightly linked to one another. If this is the case, partners regularly consider their next steps and the idea of ending or evolving the partnership will be embedded in how the partners plan and work.

Even if your partnership agreement does not include a clear renegotiation opportunity, you will naturally make adjustments to your partnership all the time, as you develop annual work plans, implement and review your joint activities, and perfect your joint communications and fundraising. However, certain events provide a natural opportunity for a more formal renegotiation, including:

  • The expiration time period included in the MOU is approaching
  • Your conservation goals are achieved
  • Project funding is terminating
  • Your project – and or your relationship – is problematic and you are not achieving the results anticipated
  • The partner asks for more responsibility or a change of roles
  • The costs outweigh the benefits
  • Threats to the natural system change or become more urgent
  • Additional partners are needed

Here are some examples of projects that planned for the end of the partnership in early stages of their work together:

  • The Nature Conservancy and partners in Micronesia began the Micronesians in Island Conservation (MIC) program with the goal of ultimately transferring management of MIC to Micronesians. MIC was successfully transferred to the Micronesia Conservation Trust within the timeframe that was originally envisioned. When focusing on building long- term conservation capacity in an area, plan for local control from the beginning.

  • The Nature Conservancy’s California Chapter and the Big Sur Land Trust began by planning for the end: "At some point, the relationship between BSLT and TNC will be so different from the one envisioned in this partnership, it will be time for this one to end. A successful exit to this partnership will be when BSLT is so fully competent that it has little to ask from TNC and TNC has little to offer, and when the conservation projects of mutual interest are completed." (see TNC-Big Sur Partnership Owners Manual)

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What Triggers Change in a Partnership?

The “end” of a partnership can have many different meanings. Some partnerships may evolve into permanent mechanisms for delivering on conservation goals – they may end up becoming a new organization that operates at a scale beyond a partnership. In other situations, a partnership will develop and pilot a program which has the explicit goal of being replicated or handed over to different groups for long-term delivery. And sometimes a partnership will end because it is struggling to meet its outcomes, or funding was withdrawn or because the goals and missions of the partners change and diverge.

In order to help identify and predict when a partnership is ready to transition, it’s helpful to build relevant indicators into your partnership assessment process ( see Section 5). The group should decide together what will trigger a change or an end to the relation, so that there is concrete information ready to support any decisions that need to be made. Some questions or indicators to build into a partnership assessment process that could help the team decide about the partnerships future include:

  • How critical has the partnership been to achieving conservation outcomes to date?
  • Has this partnership enhanced the enabling environment for conservation for the long-term in this community, region, or nation? Is it time for a change in roles to build the enabling environment?
  • Based on our current goals and history of effectiveness in this partnership, is working together critical, important, or optional?
  • What aspects of our relationship are working?
  • What aspects of our relationship are not working?
  • Ideally – what does a “good” partnership for our conservation goals look like at this point in time?
  • What changes would we expect of our organizations for us to make this a “better” partnership?
  • Are we willing to continue the partnership – weighing the conservation outcomes and the health of the relationship?

Anticipating the end of a relationship, and acting early to help adapt and change the work or to plan for closure, will help sustain the outcomes that the group has been working towards and preserve the relationships that have been built. Two main paths are renewing or refocusing the partnership, and exiting the partnership. Read more on both below.

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Adapting a Partnership

If the partnership continues to have a niche and organizations are working well together, partners may decide to refresh the relationship by restructuring the way they work together and/or re-focusing the nature of their work together. In these circumstances, partners may want to return to the first steps of the partnership cycle, and revisit things like roles and responsibilities, fundraising, and communications. This should be a quicker process the second time around since, by this stage, there should be a foundation of trust and a track record of working together.

The Partnering Initiative’s Partnering Toolbook (see tool 6) will help you set up a conversation between the partners using these three questions to begin renegotiations:

  1. What has been the value of the partnership from your organization’s perspective?
  2. What changes can you envision that would further improve the effectiveness of this partnership?
  3. What revisions do we both feel would be helpful for our future partnership?

Handling this discussion objectively and tactfully can be difficult, because these kinds of changes can threaten resources, egos, and visions. Your goal is to make renegotiation a positive experience to preserve the best of what has happened in the partnership and strive to keep a strong forward momentum for achieving conservation outcomes.

The publication Moving On (see Tool 1) provides advice “prompts” on how to create a positive environment for that conversation, including tips on ground rules, how to handle group conversations, navigating the conversation, and recording the outcomes.

Some key questions when re-negotiating:

  • What is the new focus? What are the new partnership objectives?
  • Do the operational/managerial arrangements need to be changed?
  • What are the new resource requirements? How will they be identified and secured?
  • What are the new performance indicators and benchmarks?
  • Will any /all of the current partners be involved and if so how?
  • Ideally – what does a “good” partnership for our conservation goals look like at this point in time?

(Moving On)

Re-negotiating a partnership may also require that you focus on some new issues too, including:

  • Transferring Assets: Over the course of a partnership, each partner has probably acquired both material and intellectual assets. Changing roles and responsibilities can mean changing who controls those assets. For instance, perhaps a donor agency gave you a truck for your work on this project, but now a different partner will be the lead going forward and will need the truck. Maybe you built an endowment for a small preserve that you established, and now another organization is willing to manage that preserve. Or perhaps both organizations developed intellectual property, such as a shared database. At this stage, it is important to review and amend donor agreements, MOUs, partnership agreements and grant agreements to be sure that you are working within your legal and organizational commitments.

  • Transferring External Relationships and Contacts: When one party is reducing its role and another is increasing its responsibilities, ensure that external relationships are effectively transferred. Representatives of departing institutions and teams need to introduce those who will manage the project going forward to key leaders, donors, and policy makers. This critical step can be overlooked in the transition process with so many other activities taking place. Taking the time to identify critical external relationships and manage a supportive transition demonstrates professionalism and commitment, and will enhance your reputation and relationships.

  • Adding New Partners: Successful partnerships often lead to an expansion of the joint project over a wider geography or into new areas of expertise. This creates the need to address whether and how to add new partners to the venture. Expanding the partnership will necessarily change the relationship dynamics, often in unpredictable ways. New partners need to be comfortable with the partnership agreement, and some elements of the agreement might need to change.

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Concluding a Partnership

Conservation partnerships are not meant to be permanent – they are meant to advance conservation goals. At some stage those goals will be achieved and the partnership will disband or change its focus. The formal partnership may conclude, but in all likelihood, the relationships won’t. The conservation world is small; you and your partners will continue to cross paths. Your organizations may join forces again to address the next set of threats or the next round of opportunities. Endings are always opportunities for new beginnings.

Tips for ending a partnership well:

  • Capture Learning: Ongoing monitoring, and documenting what you learn is important throughout the course of the partnership, but documenting lessons is especially important at the end. At the very least, you might conclude your partnership by jointly writing up a final project report for a donor. Try to go beyond this step for the benefit of your organization and your partners, by capturing what worked and distilling best practices from the experience. You can document your lessons learned in any number of ways, including practical manuals, case studies, and even publications. The TNC document called A Guide for Capturing Lessons Learned could be helpful at this stage.

  • Acknowledge and Celebrate: Whatever the reason for the end of the partnership, even if the ultimate goals of the partnership have not been met, it’s important to acknowledge those who contributed to the initiative. If the partnership was successful, there are reasons to celebrate, for example, a cake at a board meeting, a community fair, a letter to the editor, or a plaque. Remember, different cultures will have different expectations.

    As discussed in best practices for starting a project with early “wins”, celebrating successes should be an ongoing part of the partnership culture. That way, when you celebrate at the end, it will be the continuation of a fine tradition among the partners. In cases of clear failure and the need to move on, you should still make an effort to point out the positives – and keep communication lines open.

  • Communicate Well: Communications during the end of a partnership are very important. Good internal communications are critical for management of partner organizations and preserving relationships. Communicating effectively externally, to the broader set of stakeholders associated with a partnership is also essential to maintain the reputation of the partners and the organizations they represent. It may be wise to nominate one partner to be in charge of communication during the end of a partnership, since likely many other members will be refocusing their effort on winding down the work and planning for the future. A good resource for communications within a partnerships is The Partnering Initiative’s book, Talking the Walk.

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