8 Tips for Successful Partnership Programs

“I can tell you I don’t have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.” 

Taken, Brian Glass (played by Liam Neeson)

That excerpt is from a rather intense scene in the movie Taken and it can apply to the management and development of institutional partnerships. 

Let me explain. 

A colleague of mine was recently meeting with a small, private college regarding their struggles to achieve their enrollment goals. In the room was the senior enrollment officer and a couple of associate deans and program directors. 

To make a long story short, he mentioned that the institution had not established goals for enrollments generated through partnerships with local corporations, government agencies or non-profits. They also had no budget or anyone on staff with any expertise whatsoever in partner development.   

They proudly announced that they had several signed agreements in place – but their joy quickly disappeared when they admitted that few enrollments were generated and there had been no noticeable improvement in the programs’ awareness level or reputation in the market. 

The problem was that there was no one in this institution that had a very particular – and critical – set of skills in the area of developing and managing successful partner programs.   

The assumption was that all partnerships simply require someone from the institution to start calling on someone at another organization and agreeing to work together. 

That’s far from the truth – and it is a recipe for failure. 


All too often, the idea of partnerships comes up when enrollments and revenue are lower than expected rather than as just another possible strategic option for achieving the institution’s goals and objectives. 

And when the topic arises in this type of environment, the discussion tends to be less strategic and more tactical – as in “…so, who is going to start calling local employers?” 

Great partnership programs impact more than revenue. They impact awareness, reputation, demand. And they also impact your internal operations which impacts your institution’s ability to achieve its vision, goals and objectives. 

Which is why successful partner programs must be motivated by the institution’s vision and why these programs require a strategic approach. 

You need to think about why you want to explore partner programs, so you have clearly stated goals and objectives for them as you begin your recruitment process. 

Let me share two examples. 

A faculty member in the engineering department at a large university met an executive of a Fortune 100 firm at a conference.  The engineering department was under pressure to generate more enrollments so, over the course of a few weeks and several phone calls, the dean of the College of Engineering drafted a Memo of Understanding (MOU) that explained that employees of the Fortune 100 firm could enroll in any of the engineering programs at the university at 15% off current tuition rates. 

The MOU was signed. The press releases were sent out and picked up. 

Then everyone sat back and waited for the phone to ring and enrollments to grow. 

Within the next 12-months, there were no enrollments under the MOU. 

Now, at the other end of the spectrum, imagine the impact the Arizona State University – Starbucks Partner program might have had on existing internal resources.  The increase in inquiries and requests for information alone could have caused some institutions to implode. 

The first example is an attempt driven by the desire to generate “fast and easy enrollment growth” rather than the vision of the institution.  Neither the faculty member or dean seem to have any special skills in terms of designing an effective partner program and the result was a rather lackluster, poorly thought out and planned approach that resulted in failure. 

The second is an example of the vision of the institution driving a strategic approach led by people with the right expertise that has and will generate significant results. 

What are the skills? What is the expertise? What is a strategic approach? 

I am glad you asked… 


There is no ‘right person’. That’s because successful partnerships require a team, a total commitment from the top down and across your institution to finding the right partners and managing the best partnerships. 

That said, the key to getting this started on a successful path is knowing who your audience is, what they need and then developing a unique solution. This most likely will not be a “one size fits all” solution but it should address the foundation of services to be offered. 

This requires an initial investment on your part – some time, effort, energy and perhaps some financial investment.   

Which leads me to… 


If you have partner program, take a long, hard look at it and determine if it is effective or not. Then sit down with your partners and dig in – are they happy? What would make them happier? What other needs do they have that you can help solve? 

If you don’t have partner programs – or after you evaluate and review existing programs – you need to understand the larger market demand and opportunity. This can be accomplished many ways depending on what you feel is the best way to invest your resources. 

For some, there is no urgency and the current staff has the bandwidth, secondary research can help give you a good understanding of what organizations want, need, and expect. 

Some of this can be accomplished via secondary research but to get the details you will most likely need to get out there and meet with the businesses, government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in your market. You want to use these opportunities to uncover as much as possible about two key topics. 

First, do they have agreements with any of your competitors. If so, ask about it.   

What are the terms and conditions?  What were the goals and objectives for the program? What does the potential partner like or dislike about the current relationship with the competition? If they could change things, what would they change? 

This insight will help you understand the business dynamics at work, establish more realistic goals and objectives as well as develop your own parameters for partnerships. 

Second, regardless of the existence of any partnerships, find out what they want, need, expect and perceive so that you can [a] understand where the opportunities exist in the market, [b] which organization offers you the best potential to achieve your goals in the near and long-term and [c] what their buying/decision-making process is so you can better prepare. 

Remember, change happens so this should be a regular, on-going activity that helps you determine if your own efforts need modifying. 


How does your competition develop partnership programs with businesses and government agencies? What services do they provide? What programs are covered? How successful have they been – and why? 

These are just some of the questions you will want to ask and answer, so you understand their strengths, weaknesses and what they perceive to be their opportunities. From this insight, you can determine where they are strong and how they might be a threat, so you can focus on those opportunities that are outside the competition’s abilities and focus. 

And just like the market, change happens so this should be a regular, on-going activity that helps you determine if your own efforts need modifying. 


If what you learned in the previous steps has led you to identify a strong opportunity with limited threats, the next step is to start discussing what it is you offer potential partners. 

Just so we’re all on the same page, a unique selling proposition (USP) is the “factor or consideration presented by a seller as the reason that one product or service is different from and better than that of the competition.”  

With partnerships, your USP might address factors that are not relevant to your primary consumer audience because you will be addressing the unique wants and needs of the business/government partner. 

For example, you might customize curriculum for a partner so that it includes information and experiences not addressed in the same program when it is delivered to your consumer audience. Or you might rely more on using employees of your partner as instructors. 


One of the more common reasons that partnerships fail is the lack of adequate support in terms of resources. For some, the motivation for creating partnerships is to generate revenue and the thought of having to spend some to make some is simply ignored. 

And we have all seen ‘partnerships’ that are nothing more than good intentions and are fail to last beyond the press release. 

Do you need a management team to oversee daily operations? Dedicated and specially trained admissions and enrollment staff? Additional technology investments? A promotional budget to build awareness and demand? 


Just like your own institution, each partner program requires its own written go-to-market plan. 

And just like your own institution’s strategic plan, the partner plan needs to address the specifics so that all those involved clearly understand who is doing what, when, how and why. 

What are the goals? What are the objectives? What is the budget? Who is responsible for what and when? What programs are included and how will they be delivered? What are the processes for recruiting students? What is the process for retaining students?  What are the customer service rules and guidelines and processes? How will student discipline be handled?  


Change happens – and changes like ownership of organization or in the executive leadership of an organization can lead to the decision to bring the partnership to an end. 

That’s why having an exit strategy in place, created in a more optimistic and cooperative time, is key. 

Will enrolled students be able to complete their education under the terms of the partner program – or will they be required to continue their education under different terms and agreements? 

Who will be notified of the decision to end the partnership? When and how will they be notified? 

What is the process for ‘closing the books’ on the program, ensuring that all parties have received the appropriate financial considerations? 

These are just some of the questions that need to be addressed so there is a smooth transition out of the program for all involved. 


With the partnership launched, it’s now time to manage your go-to-market plan and identify the strengths and weaknesses so that improvements and enhancements can be made. And once operations are efficient and effective, you may wish to explore expanding the partnership to include other services/programs. Remember, the primary goal is to retain the partnership for the long-term while the secondary goal is to explore ways to improve, enhance and grow the partnership for mutual benefit. 

Written by

Strategic turnaround consultant and writer.

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