Ask a typical nonprofit executive or board member who their nonprofit collaborates with and you likely will hear about foundations, corporations, government, or the media.
But probe a bit further and ask about other nonprofits in the same field or industry, and you’re likely to hear some hesitation. No, we compete with them; no, we have a different philosophy; no, they have a certain reputation; no, we like to operate completely on our own.
Too often the words “cooperation” or “collaboration” sound more like “merger.” Executives and board leaders often feel threatened by the idea of sharing information or resources with another nonprofit, as if the inevitable outcome is that someone loses ground, gets overshadowed, or even swallowed up.
We understand these fears.
RMA’s counsel, however, is based on the idea of collaboration as a very long and gradual continuum. We encourage our clients to consider small steps. The goal is appreciating the value of reaching out, in whatever form that might take, without expectation that anything follows.
Here’s an example of the continuum. Consider that value can be gained at every single step, you are under no obligation to go further. There is a great deal of benefit along the path without imagining that you will somehow “lose” or disappear.
Find the spot on this hypothetical continuum where you are now with a similar (“competing”) organization, and consider whether going just 1-2 steps further couldn’t be a win-win all around:
Step 1. Identify a competitor or colleague within your industry or one with a like-minded mission.
Step 2. If you’re an executive director, meet informally with your counterpart.
Step 3. Share some ideas, experiences, or information on an informal basis.
Step 4. Encourage the two board chairs to meet informally for the same purpose.
Step 5. Make informal referrals back and forth as appropriate.
Step 6. Consider how your programs/services are separate but complementary.
Step 7. Explore whether information (data, referrals, etc.) could be shared more regularly or more formally.
Step 8. See if one of you has space to share for training or programs on a one-time or occasional basis.
Step 9. Cooperate together on a particular media pitch or advocacy issue (like a position paper).
Step 10. Host a joint workshop or staff roundtable to share ideas and build relationships.
Step 11. Deliver one program jointly one time, and evaluate success.
Step 12. Have your boards meet jointly 1-2 times a year to enhance understanding and relationships.
Step 13. Combine resources for a messaging or outreach campaign of mutual interest.
Step 14. Produce a special event together with shared cost/benefit/branding.
Step 15. Pool your marketing or communications budgets throughout the year, sharing electronic or print costs.
Step 16. Based on previous success, begin joint delivery in major program areas and determine advantages of shared staff and/or space.
Step 17. Occupy shared/adjoining offices.
Step 18. Identify opportunities and apply jointly for grants.
Step 19. Combine backroom resources for more efficiency in HR and accounting.
And yes, the final step is a merging of two organizations. Sometimes that is a very positive outcome, particularly for the population you serve who reap the benefit of a single, stronger agency. But positive outcomes occur all along the continuum if you’re willing to explore them.