What You Can Learn About Partnership Engagement from the Marvel World Characters: Two Practical Tips To Consider

May 10, 2018

In the world of Marvel Hero movies, practical tips can be learned about the value and challenges of partnerships.

Any nonprofit leader will tell you to meet your mission, you need money, so perhaps our first tip from the first Avengers movie should be to obtain federal resources and combine them with money from a billionaire!  (Thank you Nicole Mercho Sibilski.)


But most nonprofits do not have a billionaire behind their cause, let alone a billionaire such as Tony Stark who has an unlimited imagination with unlimited resources and the ever-thoughtful Jarvis.
Tony’s ego may be difficult to take but the guy IS extraordinary (or it could be that I have some kind of crush on actor Robert Downey Jr., hmmm).

But I digress.

In a more realistic and practical sense, there are other partnership tips we can gain from the Marvel World characters and the movies many of us enjoy watching without even realizing how these characters and their partnerships relate to our nonprofit work.
Honestly, when was the last time you started a conversation with your Board or colleagues and said, “I was watching Thor, and I think he had some great ideas about engaging our competitors in his work with Loki.” (Crickets).

Let’s see if we can take this concept and make it more practical for your nonprofit.

Two Tips to Get You Started!

Tip One:  Competitors as Partners: Even Thor Had to Engage Loki to Win

Okay. Loki was the villain in the first Avengers film and the original Thor movie, and most would argue Loki is undeniably Thor’s competitor and even nemesis.  
In Thor: The Dark World (2013), (yes spoiler if you haven’t seen this movie) Thor and Loki’s mother is killed by Malekith, an enemy of their homeland, Asgard.  After her death, Thor jailbreaks Loki and uses Loki’s anger and sadness to recruit him to help defeat Malekith together. This significant and traumatic event curbs Loki’s mischievous side, albeit for only a short while.  They defeat Malekith and save Asgard but only because they did it together.
So how does this apply to you?

  • Do you have a nonprofit that does similar work with the same population in your program footprint?
  • Do you struggle to engage them in cross-programming?
  • Is there a long history of the two organizations refusing to work together because of cultural or philosophical difference

Meet your Loki!

Regardless of the issue with your Loki, engaging them can help strengthen your mission and even “win” more funding and more resources.
So how do you do this?
First, you need to know your organization: what you do well, what you could do better and what adaptations could take your organization to the next level.
Second, research your Loki and gain your understanding of what they do well and how their work complements and might enhance your services.
Third, think about how you envision them as a partner (what do you bring to the table and what do they bring).
Fourth, make contact (hey, how about coffee?).
It took the tragic event of their mother’s death to bring Thor and Loki to the same side. Perhaps there is a common event in your community that can be a catalyst for connecting you and your Loki (federal funding cuts, advocating at the State for programs, etc.).

Tip Two: Partnerships Need Encouragement Too: Thank You, Nick Fury.

When so many talented and driven heroes come together, the original Avengers movie illustrates how ego and pride can lead to a poor partnership.
Their inability to work together leads to defeat by Loki who attacks them on an airship.  Loki gains the Tesseract (a crazy-powerful square box) and continues his attack on Earth.
Instead of working collaboratively, the Avenger team was fraught with discord:
Captain America and Iron Man are arguing over who is to follow what orders;  Black Widow is freaked out because the Hulk almost killed her (and he kind of likes her as Bruce Banner, so watch out Betty!) and she had to fight her friend, Hawkeye; Hawkeye is overcome with guilt for being on the wrong side during the fight (Loki hypnotized him); Thor is somewhere on the earth after being ejected from the airship, a beloved Federal Worker Coulson is killed and Hulk has fallen to the ground after having a Hulk-tantrum.

Did you get all of that?

Enter Nick Fury, a perfect “pull yourselves together” leader who uses the defeat (and some bloody Avenger trading cards) to motivate the team to regroup, work together, and out-strategize Loki.
It isn’t easy.  His motivational speech is only the first step to building the partnership, but it is a FIRST STEP.

Keeping partnerships alive and healthy takes work, trust, self-awareness, knowing your organization well and an appreciation of how partners make your organization stronger.
To help keep partnerships alive and healthy, you can:
1.    Communicate with one another often, even about things unrelated to work;
2.    Put the partnership agreement in writing, perhaps a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding;
3.    Determine ways you can encourage one another (congratulate a partner who wins a large grant, thank a partner who sends you information about an upcoming issue or just call to say, “great job.”)
4.    And after a significant defeat, take time to debrief on what went well and what could have gone better.

Partnerships are essential in most business sectors, and the nonprofit sector is no different.  When appropriately developed, partnerships can raise the capacity and performance of your organization, enhance your ability to meet your mission and potentially redesign your overall service delivery.
In the end, the Avengers defeat Loki and his army and save the world.  You can too.

Let's have a conversation of how to engage your partners to build-up your nonprofit. 

Join our webinar conversation: 10 Tips for Partner Engagement during our next Nonprofit Leadership Conversation.
Tuesday, May 22, 2018 at 9:00am EST- 10:30am EST.