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Seven Steps to Evaluating Third-Party Partnerships

—Co-written with Tomika Ferguson | Director of Community Partnerships, James Madison University—

The EvoLLLution | Seven Steps to Evaluating Third-Party Partnerships
Leaders need to constantly be aware of the value a vendor is bringing their institution to allow them space for strategic growth.

How do you know if your partnerships are living up to their potential? Are you being a good partner? Reflections on these questions can help strengthen partnerships in continuing education, and make sure we are using our resources effectively to generate revenue and serve the needs of our students. We strive to continuously add value to the partnership, on both sides of the equation.

The simplest definition of partner is people who share an activity, or are members of a relationship. In particular, we are referring to contracted partnerships with third-party vendors, but many of these questions and practices could be used to evaluate partnerships of other kinds.

You may have signed a contract with a third-party vendor, especially one that performs more or less autonomously, and then realize two or three years later that you haven’t thought about it. Many kinds of change could have happened over that time, be it the market, the investment, or the relationship. Without thinking about the quality of the partnership and its results, we may miss moments to realign efforts, generate more revenue, enroll more students, or refine marketing efforts. It’s also possible that you may have partnerships that you’ve inherited that no longer support your mission, and they need to be realigned or dissolved.

This process can help all parties reflect on the quality of the partnership to consider how best to move forward.

Third-Party Partnership Evaluation

To underscore how our partnerships benefit our mission, we designed the Third-Party Partnership Evaluation to reflect over each relationship separately. Each component is assigned to a specific set of questions to spark reflection of our role in the partnership, an examination of artifacts within the partnerships, and provide information to be used for goal setting.

1. Review of contracted responsibilities

Review the scope of services in the contract and summarize the efforts of both parties to perform responsibilities of the partnership.

We review the contract to identify what our office and our partners’ responsibilities are. Over time, partnership expectations may shift due to staff changes or a shifting market. However, identifying the original components of the partnership can serve as a reminder of the purpose of the partnership and reduce the ambiguity of how the partnership may currently look.

2. Benefits of partnership

Describe the benefit of this partnership. Why does this partnership exist? What is the benefit of these programs to our organization?

Articulating the benefits of the partnership requires reflection from staff members about how this individual partnership fits in with your mission, program portfolio and market presence. If the partnership no longer benefits the organization, this evaluation may serve as a catalyst to reengage with the partner or consider termination of the relationship.

3. Communication

Describe the relationship between [vendor] and organization. How does communication take place within the partnership? What types of communication exist and how often? In what ways are both parties held accountable for their responsibilities of the partnership?

With staff changes and evolving relationships, modes of communication can shift and may hinder the success of the partnership. Program coordinators may have a different idea from their supervisors of what the relationship between the vendor and the organization should or should not be. This component encourages open discussion about accountability not only for the partner, but also for the organization.

4. Resources

Summarize how the resources allocated to the partnership are being used effectively. What are the resources that exist in this partnership and how are they being utilized (e.g. marketing, staff)? In what ways does the partnership exercise the strengths of each party?

Identifying resources that exist within the partnership and how they are used is beneficial to the organization. You may be able to identify overlooked resources or reveal needs within the partnership. This component uses reflection to ascertain your organization’s knowledge of resources available from the partner, providing an opportunity to engage with your partner about essential resources.

5. Value

Summarize the value of the partnership between [vendor] and the organization. What is the value (i.e. financial, academic) of this partnership over time? How does the partnership support annual and future organizational goals? What are the achievements of this partnership?

Value can be determined by a myriad of factors. This component seeks to derive tangible and intangible value(s) gained from the partnership by examining artifacts within the partnership and highlighting ways the partnership supports organizational goals.

6. Areas of Growth

Describe areas of growth within this partnership and provide a suggested solution.

To build upon reflection of the partnership, we complete this portion of the evaluation in a group setting with all staff who are responsible for or affiliated with the partnership. The group reflection provides an opportunity to brainstorm suggested solutions for potential areas of growth for the partnership.

7. Partnership Goals

Reflecting over the components of this evaluation and future goals for the organization, list suggested goals for the partnership in the SMART method (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound).

Once goals are set, staff should schedule a meeting with the partner to provide a high-level overview of this evaluation. There may be missing components that require input from the partner to complete the evaluation. It is up to the organization, based on the nature of the partnership, to determine if goals should be set with the partner or by the organization and shared with the partner. The invitation to partners is intentional to solicit buy-in and enhance transparency of the relationship.


The Third-Party Partnership Evaluation can be a successful tool for organizations that seek to ascertain value within their partnerships. This evaluation process can be enhanced by an organization that has already created annual goals and confirmed the organization’s mission. This will provide opportunities for the evaluation to be aligned with larger priorities. It is our goal that at the end of this evaluation you will be able to articulate how your partnership supports your organization’s mission.