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Evaluating opportunities for external partnerships

March 2, 2022

Emily Hochstatter

Director of Risk Management and Administrative Initiatives, Northern Illinois University

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EAB.

When considering whether external partnerships are worthwhile, universities often look at the opportunity from a siloed decision-making structure, and decisions are made without opening a university-wide lens. As a result, partners are limited by contracts as far as what they can offer, even if they could offer the organization additional value.

This stifles what a partner can do for institutions and creates procurement issues and excess work. We can’t always add services on to the back end of an agreement, so it’s much more efficient to include all services in the initial agreement so we don’t have to establish a second contract with the same vendor or wait until the contract has expired. Thus, our research question was formed: How can we most advantageously leverage external partnerships across the entire university ecosystem? And our proposed solution was introduced as three steps:

1. Conduct an initial, then ongoing, partner audit

A partner audit to identify the partnerships currently in place and areas we may benefit from pursuing such an opportunity is a great starting point and a critical piece for sustaining a successful partnership model. However, the crux of the partnership issue lies in the limited scope of benefit review at the research phase of the project -before a request for proposal is launched and before a contract is established.

2. Conduct full-scale opportunity assessments with other areas

When looking at a partnership to fill a need or take the place of a service the university provides, we must think broader than meeting the immediate need:

  • How else might the university benefit? Is there a marketing opportunity to create visibility?
  • Is there an opportunity for alumni engagement?
  • Is there a way to incorporate student experiential learning or student hiring paths?

Determining which departments to communicate with will vary by project, but educating all areas on the importance of evaluating mutually beneficial opportunities with colleagues will help establish this checkpoint as a consistent step in the procurement process for external partnerships.

3. Go back to basics with risk assessments before venturing forward

Traditional assessments like SWOT and CBA analyses will always be part of the consideration, but the full picture is incomplete without considering benefits across campus. In a time in higher education when staffing and funding are down, areas are stressed, and partnership opportunities are available, it’s essential to make these partnerships as advantageous for the university as possible while avoiding duplicate contracts, renegotiations, and other excess work.

External partnerships are excellent resources in a time when universities need to focus on their core educational missions and worry less about functionality in other areas. It has been a privilege to participate in this program with my partner and reflect on a topic of great importance as we move to integrate this mentality across our respective campuses and maximize these partner relationships now and going forward.

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Emily Hochstatter and others participated in EAB’s Rising Higher Education Leaders Fellowship in fall 2021

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