Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Are Organizations Stronger Together than Alone?

”High-impact nonprofits work with and through organizations and individuals outside themselves to create more impact than they ever could have achieved alone.” This conclusion, based on a study of 12 impactful nonprofits, illustrates the strength of collaborations. (McLeod Grant & Crutchfield, 2007) In this blog, I will draw on three case studies to outline important opportunities and challenges of collaboration. Not only have these organizations expanded beyond their own walls but also into different sectors – we will learn from the collaboration between a nonprofit and 1) a governmental organization 2) another nonprofit and 3) a for-profit organization.

The collaboration between the Department of Social Services (DSS) and La Alianza Hispana essentially addresses the appropriateness for a governmental organization to outsource services through contractual agreements with nonprofits/private service providers. Many of the challenges in this particular case can be applied more broadly. La Alianza has access to the target group, and has a strong track record of providing services within its current portfolio – but lacks the case management and legal experience necessary to deliver this service.  (Varley, 1996) Questions for nonprofits to consider include: When are you in the position to turn down money from major contributors to favor the organization’s mission? When is a change of mission legitimized? Does the organization possess the capabilities required to deliver the services?

Despite the considerably different missions of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) and the promoters of low-income housing, First Things First (FCF), their shared interest of winning the vote results in them forming a coalition. (Yankey & Willen, 2010; Yankey et. al, 2001) There is a lot to learn from the coalition’s ability to leverage the two organization’s different resources - financial resources from SAM and human resources (volunteers) from FCF. (Fortier, 1996) A recurring challenge in both this case and the next, is aligning all the stakeholders of the two organizations – so that it is not only the leaders (whether it is the coalition leadership or the dedicated CEO) that recognize and work towards the shared interest.

The Timberland – City Year partnership is an example of a partnership that developed from a dedicated community partnership to an extensive national partnership. The partnership is never critically assessed – there is no urgent need to make a plan for long-term sustainability as long as both organizations are advancing and Timberland maintains its high levels of profitability. Instead, City Year’s operations come to rely more and more heavily on Timberland’s financial contribution. At the point when numbers turn red, we are reminded that the missions may not be as compatible as outlined, and that the two organization’s stakeholders are different – Timberland’s stakeholders will most likely not prioritize social returns over financial. (Elias, 1996)

From my understanding of the case Timberland got a lot out of the partnership - its reputation bolstered and operations were potentially improved through Year Up activities including employee training sessions. Consequently, a question that comes up is how to put a price tag on the services, the exposure and the for-profit’s association with the brand of a nonprofit. While some companies may pay a price higher than market price of an abstract valuation – I believe many nonprofits may underestimate their investment in the partnership as it is more difficult to measure (even though there are certainly cases when it is the other way around).

Evidently, many challenges and opportunities can be traced back to the different focuses of the sectors, also described in the January blogs ( In the end, a successful partnership is evaluated differently depending on what weight you put on different returns – to what extent has it promoted social return (cause), financial return and public opinion?

Elias, J. 1996. Timberland and Community Involvement. Supervisor James Austin. Harvard Business School Publishing. Boston, MA.
Fortier, S. 1996. Funding Seattle’s Art Museum and Low-Income Housing: The Politics of Interest Groups and Tax Levies (A). Supervisor Jon Brock. Cascade Center for Public Service: Public Service Curriculum Exchange.
McLeod Grant, H. & Crutchfield, L., R. 2007. Creating High-Impact Nonprofits. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved from:
Yankey, J. A., Wester Jacobus, B. & McNally Koney, K. 2001. Merging Nonprofit Organizations: The Art and Science of the Deal. Mandel Center for Nonprofit Organizations: Cleveland, OH.
Yankey, J.A. & Willen, C.K. 2010. Collaboration and Strategic Alliances in The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Renz, David O, ed. 375-400. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA. 
Varley, P. 1996. Partners in Child Protection Services: The Department of Social Services and La Alianza Hispana (A). Abridged. Kennedy School of Government. Boston, MA.