Considerations for successful international partnerships and collaborations

10 May 2011
For decades, nonprofit institutions (universities, NGOs, etc.) have engaged in an extensive array of partnership activities abroad. These activities have done much to strengthen the education and research objectives of an institution by assisting them with insights drawn from experience in the larger world.

When contemplating a new partnership, the question of how best to move forward with another institution demands careful consideration.  Different types of partnership arrangements may also require different factors to consider.  Examples of partnerships may include research collaborations, academic partnerships (such as study abroad or exchange programs), and government or charitable grant agreements. These collaborations, though often very valuable in their benefits to both institutions, carry reputational and financial risks which can be minimized with the proper planning and due diligence on the part of both institutions.

Evaluation criteria

When first considering an institution to partner with, it is often good practice to establish Evaluation Criteria to use quantitatively or qualitatively to make a decision.  Examples of criteria would be as follows:


  • Mission fit with your institution?
  • Consistent with institutional goals?
  • What is the reputation of the institution being considered?
  • In what region or country do they operate?
  • Are there measureable mutual benefits?
  • What is the potential impact on future gifts or grants?
  • What is the perceived student interest?

Logistical and other

  • Do you have administrative bandwidth and support?
  • Do you have leadership support?
  • Is there funding to sustain the partnership even during an economic downturn?
  • Has adequate internal planning already occurred?
  • What are the geographic issues? (language barriers, time zone differences, medical facilities, etc.)
Risk considerations

When utilizing these criteria or in forming others, there are many risks to be considered.  Partnerships are often desirable arrangements due to the ease in the operational and administrative burden of setting up a solo activity, in addition to the cultural benefits.  However, there is likely an increase in reputational risk when engaging a partner due to the decrease in control your organization may have.  The control elements being compromised may include:

  • Academic – the institution’s ability to control the curriculum of the educational purpose
  • Research – control over decisions and protocol
  • Legal – not registering the name of the university in the local country reduces the ability to prevent inappropriate use of the university’s name, thereby increasing reputational risk
  • Operational – while there are many operational benefits to partnerships, compliance with local laws, morale standards, and quality of facilities become risk factors, particularly after year one.

Examples of other risks to be considered:

  • For what other purposes can a partner use the classroom or research space?
  • What is your institution’s ability to fulfill contractual obligations?
  • Are there obligations of your institution to accept students?
  • Are there obligations of students upon getting degree
  • Misunderstanding of roles for each institution
  • Difficulty of terminating arrangement
  • Reputational exposure if partner does not fulfill its obligations
  • Domestic compliance (A-133, Export controls, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act)
  • Requirements of local government (audits, filings)
  • Administrative support  in foreign country
  • Sustainability after first year
Metrics of success

Metrics about how successful the partnership is in terms of meeting your institutional expectations should be very measurable. This is the key to a successful Governance process, particularly after the first year.   Identifying measureable metrics at the commencement of the partnership and putting in a system to measure them is important to determine if the partnership is worthwhile after year one, year three, or year five.  Examples of measurable metrics include:

  • Number of students enrolled in program
  • Student feedback
  • Number of faculty engaged
  • Increases in external funding
  • Improvements in curriculum and student learning measures
  • New projects/programs generated from partnership
  • Evaluations performed by each partner
  • Ease or difficulty of working with partner
  • Meeting budgets originally established, or ensuring overages are covered by new grants/gifts and increased scope or activities
  • Regular visits to partner campuses by both universities
  • Meeting of deadlines and milestones, if applicable