How to make technology partnerships a success

It’s very common in the NGO world for technology companies to partner with non profit organisations. Designed well, the partnership should benefit both sides. The NGO will be able to use software they wouldn’t be able to afford/know how to use, and the technology company gets some great use-cases. “We are saving the planet…!”. “Look our software is saving the planet!”. That sort of thing. When faced with a possible partnership, I try to consider these thing:

  1. Senior managers of the NGO need to make sure they seek some technical advice first before agreeing to a partnership. Give yourself some time to think about what the software offers outside of a technical demonstration. Remember the tech demo is the software at it’s very best, avoid the halo and objectively assess later. If there isn’t capacity inside to review it, get some impartial advice.
  2. Make sure the relationship does not mean other software is precluded from use. First and foremost, the NGO is trying to deliver impact to their users, sticking with one platform could be limiting and reduce the chances of impact. Especially early on in a project. Every technology design decision creates limits, the later you can apply those limits when you are learning what to do, the better.
  3. If you are building custom software/websites/systems, I wouldn’t use the partnering company if they are a product company. They are not going to put their best people on it. Instead either find a different service based company that knows the technology or do it yourself if you have some in house engineers.
  4. Don’t underestimate the financial overhead of technology partnerships. To be fruitful, they take effort. This time needs to be factored into projects. Seeing that effort in terms of hard cash helps you figure out if it’s needed. I’d work on roughly a 10% budget increase.
  5. Does the tech company offer marketing value, is their reach greater that yours and if yes, is it the right people they are reaching? This is often the main reason why an NGO might want to partner with a tech company. Estimate the increase in usage and be realistic.
  6. This should probably be the first one. Are there open and free alternatives that will do a better job? When I was at UNEP-WCMC we used a plethora of different software solutions. Mainly open source, but not always. Often the default is open source for all sorts of reasons, not least we’ve found we can innovate faster. This leads to the next point:
  7. Is a partnership necessary? It can be as fundamental as a project failing or winning so don’t take it lightly. More partners isn’t always more good stuff.
  8. Alpha the partnership. Try a small prototype first, does the partnership add value, are your engineers happy, are there better options?

I’ve seen some great work done with the combined forces of tech companies and NGOs. Also some terrible failures (which no-one talks about … shhhh). I guess by considering some of these things, I hope there are more successes!