There has been considerable effort to set specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timed (SMART) targets to halt the decline in the quality of water entering the Great Barrier Reef from diffuse sources. Less attention has focused on the assessment of collaborative delivery options needed to meet these targets. This article adapts the SMART criteria to assess partnership needs to deliver voluntary water quality management programs proposed in Queensland's Tully- Murray Water Quality Improvement Plan. This formative assessment enabled us to guide agricultural industry and local government sector focus group discussions. These discussions helped to determine if institutional arrangements adequately considered the specific purpose of proposed management activities, if measures of delivery success were compatible among collaborators, and if delivery costs were fairly distributed and achievable. The assessment also exposed the relevance of proposed management programs to each partner's activities and agendas, and how temporal attributes of partnership design and purpose could maximise the benefits of proposed actions. We suggest that the framework can help other practitioners and researchers to assess systematically how partnerships can be adaptively designed to ‘fit’ the objectives of integrated water quality management plans.