Partnership policy

Our commitment to a fair exchange

Synaps sees itself as part of a broader civic sector, which we aim to learn from, promote, and develop in accordance with our own goals. As such, working with others is essential, and goes far beyond seeking funds or purchasing services. Who we work with and how we work with them are at the heart of our mission. It is through partnerships that Synaps has improved, experimented, and grown. This policy builds on that experience, and guides our decisions into the future.

Types of partners

Synaps has formed relationships with the following partners:
  • Clients, who paid us to provide a contractual service (eg aid and development agencies).
  • Suppliers, whom we paid to do as much (eg designers, programmers, consultants).
  • Peers, working for small civic organizations, with whom we collaborate largely on a pro bono basis—although such cooperation may be formalized in a contract.
  • Donors, who support Synaps’ mission and development through core funding.


Partnerships are a place to demonstrate our core values as an organization: tenacity, rigor, candor, adaptability, community, and efficiency. 

In addition, our partnerships rest on the fundamental principle of fairness. They must be fair to all: Synaps and our partners, of course, but also the communities that surround us. These may be taxpayers, aid beneficiaries, or ordinary citizens, who naturally have a say in how civic organizations function. Fairness therefore entails public accountability, on behalf of both Synaps and our partner.

Fairness also applies to compensation. We expect due compensation for our staff, encompassing all aspects of a decent work environment: notice, vacations, insurance, healthcare, facilities, equipment, supervision, and training. Equally, we are eager to pay others fairly, with particular attention to vulnerable suppliers such as young freelancers.

Fairness extends to the principle of “duty of care.” Synaps demands that its staff show concern for all people involved in a given project, especially in dangerous or otherwise challenging environments; we expect our partners to do the same. At a minimum, this implies inquiring about safety and wellbeing, and sharing that information internally.

In a sector dependent on top-down funding, demanding fairness entails taking risks. We recognize and recommit to such risk-taking. Synaps has had, in the past, to renegotiate or turn down contracts that conflicted with our values; to refuse meetings and travel that we assessed were an unproductive use of resources; to openly criticize both others and ourselves, in a spirit of mutual accountability; and to enforce policies even as they jeopardized important financial relationships. 

A final expression of our commitment to fairness lies in dialogue, which starts with listening to others. Synaps will not blame our partners: Rather, we assume our share of responsibility in any failure. Nor will we lecture or badmouth our partners: When disagreements or misunderstandings arise, we will explain our views and lay out our limits transparently.

Partnership vision

Clients and donors

To pursue our mission, Synaps must secure revenues through partnerships with clients and donors. These relationships naturally come with conditions. 

To maintain our independence, Synaps seeks a healthy balance between core funding and service-based contracts. Core funding ensures our financial adaptability, enables us to work pro bono for our peers, and supports our investments in organizational development and R&D. By the same token, service contracts structure our work around real-life constraints and tangible outcomes. We aspire to maintain a ratio of 30% core to 70% service-based. 

We review prospective partners before signing any contract. That entails assessing an organization’s policies and politics to ensure compliance with our own procedures and core values.

When it comes to service-based partnerships, Synaps will sign contracts in accordance with the following criteria:
  • The project’s goals closely align with those in our current five-year strategy.
  • The project does not conflict with our values or restrict our freedom of speech.
  • The project’s budget is manageable given our past experience: No single project can exceed our largest annual turnover.
  • The budget covers all relevant costs, to include administrative requirements and other operating costs, typically amounting to 10-15% overhead.
  • The payment tranches include an advanced payment, and are staggered regularly throughout the duration of the project.
  • The final tranche, paid upon delivery, represents no more than 15% of the budget.

Synaps will not participate in bidding processes where the winner is known from the outset, even when it benefits us. This widespread practice creates unjustifiable work for other organizations. 

Peer organizations

From inception, Synaps has functioned as an experimental organization in the service of our peers. We publish self-critical findings; release our own tools for others to use; challenge our sector’s more ambiguous streams of funding; avoid any competition with local organizations; and seek every opportunity to support our peers, whether by promoting their work or conducting joint projects together.

Our preferred approach to supporting peer organizations is to assist them with tangible projects—as opposed to delivering theoretical trainings. This typically starts with an organization approaching us to help out in an area where they see us as particularly qualified. We follow up on such requests according to the following criteria, which considerably increase the chances of success. The request must enjoy:
  • Narrowly defined and time-bound goals.
  • Good timing, in the sense that needs must be current rather than past or presumed.
  • Specific and tangible outputs, such as published research, even if these outputs serve to transfer more general skills.
  • Realistic budgeting, which typically implies both buy-in from the organization (to ensure a healthy commitment and high expectations) and some form of subsidy (namely pro bono work on our part or third-party funding).
  • Clear and stable ownership, in the form of a focal point who has the authority, the motivation, and the bandwidth to see this collaboration through.

Even in the context of pro bono work, all our policies apply: notably compliance, anti-corruption, child protection, anti-harassment, and complaint. Relevant policies will be shared with the partner organization at the start of any joint project.


As with other partners, suppliers are subject to all our relevant policies, in addition to procurement and compliance, and will be apprised of our policies from the outset. 

Above a threshold of $1000 per partner per project, Synaps will advertise a call for proposals, describing the supplies or services we seek, the qualifications we expect, the criteria for shortlisting or selecting candidates, and a clear timeline. In line with our fairness principle, Synaps commits to never advertising a bid if we already have in mind a trusted partner to contract with. 

Synaps may contract a partner directly if all of the below criteria are met: 
  • We have worked with the same partner in the past.
  • We can document our satisfaction with past collaboration, through tangible outcomes in areas relevant to the new project.
  • We can establish that, for the purpose of this particular project, starting a new relationship would present a significant additional cost or risk.
  • We can prove that the partner’s current fees are sensible given market practices. 
  • We submit the above documentation in our financial reporting to the board.

Synaps commits to treating our suppliers as we expect to be treated by our own funding partners. Our commitments include:
  • Clear and consistent administrative requirements, shared at the start of the relationship in a single document. 
  • Contracts that are short and written in plain language.
  • A straightforward complaint policy, which we share with all suppliers and service providers.
  • Payment tranches that reflect the partner’s costs in each stage of the project.
  • Payments made on time, with minimal follow up from the partner.
  • Feedback on the partner’s submissions that is timely, detailed, helpful, and consolidated in a single document. 

With creative partners, Synaps will own the intellectual property of any work commissioned. But we will authorize, on a case-by-case basis, such creative partners to reuse their work in ways that do not contradict said intellectual property. 

As a rule, Synaps will not subcontract, in the sense of outsourcing work performed in Synaps’ name. Nor will Synaps serve as a subcontractor for larger organizations. In both cases, we view this structure as inherently unfair. If exceptional cases require us to subcontract, we would: 
  • Perform a partner assessment to identify where the partner needs help to meet the standards set by our policies and procedures.
  • Build into the partnership the time and resources necessary to transfer organizational competence to the partner.
  • Document this exception in our financial reporting to our board.

Termination and closure

Synaps will end all partnerships professionally, whether they were satisfactory or not. Whenever possible, Synaps will request an exit interview with at least one representative of the partner. Such an interview ideally will occur within six months of the end of the contract, while memories on all sides are still fresh. 

For relationships that ended on an unsatisfactory note, Synaps will conduct an internal postmortem review in order to learn from the experience. Such reviews will be completed within six months of a relationship’s closure, and will be documented in writing.

Annex: practical guide for staff

We strive to convey our core values in all our relations with our partners. In practice, this means staff should: 
  • Listen to partners attentively, to understand their point of view.
  • Strive to provide them with genuine value in their day-to-day work.
  • Be grateful for their engagement and actively reward it.
  • Be loyal to our partners before expecting any loyalty in return.
  • Find ways to give more than we contractually commit to.
  • Remember why we are doing what we do, and explain why we believe in it.
  • Humanize our work with your more personal take, while remaining professional.

It is our responsibility to build a dynamic partnership that is truly fulfilling at both ends. In that respect, here are some essential dos and don’ts, especially applicable to clients. 
  • Don’t assume that we understand our clients’ needs. Rather, invest continuously in learning about them. A counterintuitive but essential part of our “fieldwork” involves understanding our clients’ operating model, constraints, internal politics, and so on. Only on that basis can we evolve in step with their needs: We listen, we learn, we tailor.
  • Don’t be satisfied with renewing a contract. Continuity provides a deceptive sense of security, when a healthy relationship is one that evolves over time. Our strength will come from saying: “We’re in a satisfactory contract with you. Let’s sign an even better one.” Proposals must reflect this philosophy.
  • Don’t bank on loyalty. While striving to maintain existing relationships, always work on a reasonable exit route. Clients should seek to renew their engagements because they see value in doing so, not because we rely on them. Collaboration must remain a matter of choice, rather than survival. Therefore, constantly ask yourself: What is plan B?
  • Don’t count on personal relationships either. They often play a critical role in starting a partnership, but should not remain central to sustaining one. People change jobs or simply lose interest. They have no responsibility toward us. Our duty is to develop a robust and diversified set of relationships within any client organization. Never ignore those who are indifferent or hostile: They must be won over or at least understood.
  • Don’t recoil at interpersonal conflicts. Simmering tensions cannot be left to boil over. Rather, they must be analyzed, deescalated, and resolved. A proven formula involves 1) connecting directly with the most contentious individuals, to give them an opportunity to air their views, reappraise you, and realize that you do not shy away from confrontation; 2) assessing where they are coming from; 3) taking every reasonable criticism into account, and pushing back firmly but diplomatically on anything undue; 4) defining our red lines; 5) mobilizing allies; and 6) escalating to higher-ups as a last resort.
  • Do push back, when sources of friction first appear. Clients will respect us for stating our limits. That includes refusing to overcommit ourselves, and pointing out ethical or methodological concerns relating to our work together. Many conflicts derive from failing to raise such issues early on. Besides, transparency is at the core of our identity.
  • Do involve our clients. The more we know each other the more fruitful the collaboration. Invite clients to the office, to connect with other colleagues, to read our introspective reporting, to share questions, to provide feedback on our work, and so on. Be proactive in your own communication, as you anticipate their needs, provide unsolicited updates, or offer to contribute to an internal brainstorm. All such steps can help create a form of intimacy that will consolidate the relationship.
  • Do follow up, but never chase. Although we depend on active communication with our clients, we must respect their time. Keep emails short and targeted, preferably focused on one issue only. When meeting a client in person, make sure you go in with an agenda: Define what you can give, what feedback you need, and what you hope to accomplish.
  • Do document these relationships. A business relationship requires a paper trail, especially to keep track of commitments as well as potentially contentious issues. Meetings with clients must produce written notes shared with relevant colleagues: Jot down in particular any surprises, lessons-learned and action points. Equally important, Synaps must constantly learn from client interactions, to enhance our existing contracts and secure new ones. 
  • Do maintain the highest standards. Every interaction we have with our clients will express, enhance, or undermine our brand. Sloppy emails contradict our claim to clarity, just as unsatisfying meetings will leave a lasting impression. Financial reporting must be edited, proofed, and formatted as tightly and consistently as anything else. On all our output, always think through whether we can add an extra layer of readability.
  • Finally, be the client you would like others to be. We also sign contracts with consultants and providers: From their vantage point, we are clients ourselves. Make a point of not handing down the kind of troubles we face: delayed payments, poor communication, tepid engagement, and so on. On the contrary, lead by example!

Illustration credits: W. Cooper A fair exchange by Wikimedia / Public domain; bananas by Flickr / Creative Commons.