Let’s get serious about collaboration

We were impressed by the news of several arts organizations in Dayton, Ohio, merging in an unusual way–the ballet, orchestra and opera are now one nonprofit organization to share administrative operations and costs and, they hope, produce more collaborative programming. NPR reported on this intriguing move at http://www.npr.org/2012/09/28/161974482/ohio-arts-groups-merge-to-solve-their-budget-woes.

Are you finally ready to seriously explore forming partnerships with other organizations? Collaboration isn’t just a good idea any more. It may be essential to your survival.

Perhaps it’s something about the kind of leaders that our sector attracts. We’re passionate, visionary, no strangers to long hours. Unfortunately, these same characteristics may in fact keep us from letting down our barriers and being willing to join forces with other like-minded organizations.

As funding across the sector remains tight, nonprofits are well served to consider how to build cross-functional and sustainable partnerships to strengthen organizational capacity. Funders are having to make difficult decisions; those organizations that can demonstrate greater efficiency, service integration, and collaboration will be uniquely positioned to weather the storm.

We’re all reluctant to accept economic challenges, and it can be especially for your board to face facts as well. But it may well be time for you to share, collaborate and blend as a strategy for sustainable impact and growth. Consider the following:

1.  Realistically define what you have to share, and what you would seek from a partner–and let’s eliminate “dollars” from the equation, since it is a given that everyone is challenged. Perhaps you have space, and a potential partner has volunteers seeking meaningful engagement. Perhaps you have excellent technology systems, and a partner has a strong community outreach team.

2.  Explore whether your belief in your unique identity/mission is fostering a potentially destructive “go it alone” perspective.

3.  Examine misconceptions around collaboration (“I will lose my voice”) and accept that it is appropriate at times for like-minded leaders to speak with one voice.

4.  Accept that an entity you consider your prime competitor may in fact be the best candidate for a conversation about working together toward a common goal.

5.  Consider that collaboration is a continuum. Starting by sharing information is a simple way to build relationships with like-minded professionals, with many graduated steps in between before actually considering a full-blown merger with another organization.

6.  Research cross-sector alliances (i.e., public/nonprofit, private/nonprofit) as well as partners who are other nonprofits. It is in challenging times that some organizations make their most innovative changes.

7.  Finding the right partner—and the right program to collaborate on—can be one of the most rewarding decisions a nonprofit leader can make. The process requires both passion and an eye for detail. Great collaborations don’t begin overnight.

8.  Do we have like-minded missions? In what ways are the missions different? Sometimes the initial fervor of “We can work together!” doesn’t hold up under closer scrutiny, and perhaps that is OK. A balanced team of board and staff will ideally have both expressive-style people who are enthusiastic about making connections in the community, and analytic-style people who work out the details.

9.  Where are the two prospective partners in their organizational life cycles? How important is it that they are in the same chapter—or is part of the benefit of this match the fact that life cycles are different but complementary? An aging organization can get a vibrant, fresh boost from a younger partner; a fledgling nonprofit can thrive under the wing of a more established entity. Just be clear on what your respective motives are for this partnership.

10.  Who are the designated contact/bridge people? Are they the right ones? Does the relationship extend beyond individuals—since people have a habit of leaving their jobs? Or, if the two contact people are paid staff, they might be threatened by possible redundancy down the road. If the initial idea for the partnership is launched by board members, the motivation of paid staff may not be shared. Trying to launch a joint initiative, even a terrific one, can be ruined by the wrong point people.

11.  Are we clear on each partner’s respective strengths, weaknesses, and roles? Being candid at the onset about such facts can save relationships, and possibly the entire program.

12.  How do we need to work toward board approval–on both sides? Staff and volunteers must not get ahead of each other on the governance and decision-making. Enthusiasm for a new venture should be protected with whatever governance (and even legal) due diligence is called for. If a board that feels that a new initiative is “a done deal” before they have formally approved it may not ever become supportive and may even work against the program in the future.

13.  Is there key stakeholder acceptance? Sometimes a new program can put a nonprofit at odds with its existing volunteers or funders. Some donors or funders have a stated or unstated political or religious perspective that may not be aligned with a nonprofit’s collaboration with a new partner.

14.  Does this enhance our ability to fund-raise . . . or complicate/hinder it? Demonstrated collaboration is generally perceived as a strength. But be sure to think through all the implications of a partnership. Working on a joint project with a financially stable, larger nonprofit may mistakenly give the impression that the smaller partner won’t need support in other program areas.

15.  Do we have rules of the road on decision-making, approvals, information releases, media spokesmen, etc.? Suppose a joint program is developed, which one nonprofit features on the opening page of its web site. The other nonprofit does not update its site as often and does not make mention of the program at all. Even if the program was intended to be 50-50, will it be perceived as such? If a brochure is prepared, who gets to sign off? Meanwhile, can both nonprofits make note of the program in their grant requests, annual reports, newsletters, and so on? If a reporter calls and wants an interview, would both partners be included? And will all data that results from this joint program (i.e., participants’ names, donors, volunteers, etc.) be shared property?

16.  How will we specifically define success in the partnership, and at what point will we evaluate whether it should continue? Are the two partners on the same fiscal/budget year, or program year—and if not, what are the implications of trying to end the project when one partner is committed to continuing it? Meanwhile, good measurement systems should be in place so that all parties can assess whether the program is working. Notice, too, if the original partnership was the favored creation of a particular board member, and whether measurement steps were skipped as a result. What happens when that particular board member’s term or involvement ends?

17.  Would a successful co-delivery of a program lead to a conversation about additional programs together? Or perhaps to exploring an actual merger? Keep in mind that the word “merger” frightens many people. Be specific about your organization’s expectations in the short term, but remain open to the unexpected consequence of where successful collaboration can lead in the future.


1 Comment

  1. We had a meeting this morning about cross-department collaboration within the organization (to break up silos and share knowledge) and most of these tips apply to that smaller scale. Might not be using them as intended but we will definitely be implementing your advice. Great timing on the article!

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