Collaboration can yield great results: bringing together different groups, saving money, accomplishing goals that would be unattainable for one organization, and providing better services and products to the public. Unfortunately, collaboration, particularly across sectors, is often rife with challenges. Henry Kippin writes for The Guardian, “Dysfunctional relationships between the public, private and social sectors emerge, in part, because of a lack of empathy and understanding, which drives misalignment of incentives and misunderstanding of values.” Let’s look at three case studies to see what Kippin means.
The Massachusetts Department of Social Services (DSS) and La Alianza Hispana had the opportunity to collaborate to better deliver services to the Hispanic population in the area. Unfortunately, the potential collaboration between the governmental agency and nonprofit began several with issues. First, how would startup of the partnership be funded? DSS planned to provide funds to run the program but not to startup the collaboration. Additionally, power dynamics plagued the partnership with DSS threatening to pull an existing contract with La Alianza Hispana if they did not work on the new project together. This power play shows a lack of empathy towards La Alianza as DSS was unconcerned about what pulling funding would mean for the nonprofit. Unequal power dynamics as shown in this case are a key issue for government-nonprofit collaboration as the government is often the provider of funds for the nonprofit!
In a second example, we see the Seattle Art Museum and First Things First coming together to get two referendums passed. The referendums did not align; one was about low-income housing, and the other to fund the art museum, but the two nonprofits knew that if they came together and campaigned jointly they could bring about change that they could not bring about independently. Unfortunately, this partnership faced challenges including unequal involvement of the partners. According to a United Way publication (2008) equal involvement is crucial in collaborations. Nonprofit collaborations in particular may struggle to with equal involvement from both parties as both are often taxed in resources (both staff time and financial resources).
A third example of a collaboration is between a nonprofit, City Year (a service corps) and for-profit, Timberland Boots (a company selling apparel and boots). The two collaborated in a number of ways culminating in a joint line of City Year Gear. Unfortunately, this collaboration also faced challenges with a lack of planning and vision for the partnership. In particular, this lack of planning exacerbated a common challenge nonprofit and for-profit collaborations face, misunderstanding of values as both are not focused on bringing in profit.
Overall, collaborations across all sectors face common challenges of lack of communication and trust in the partnership (Sharma and Missey 1998). Henry Kippin of The Guardian notes, “Working together requires trust, communication, humility and a shared understanding of purpose and outcomes.” If each partner brings these to the table and continues to trust and communicate throughout the process, collaborations can succeed. With increased communication and trust all of the issues mentioned in the above cases with power dynamics, unequal involvement of parties, and a lack of planning and vision can all be addressed early on in the collaboration bringing about a successful venture.