Thursday, April 9, 2015

Collaboration Across Nonprofit, For-profit, and Public Sectors

What comes to mind when you hear the term "collaboration?" Perhaps you envision students working together to complete a school project, companies joining forces to create a new product, or even a college basketball team playing together to win the National Championship (we still love you, Badgers). Simply defined, collaboration is the act of working together to complete a goal. In the world of nonprofit agencies, collaboration can present both opportunities and challenges, as we saw in the cases presented in class on March 19th.
In the first case, the Department of Social Services (DSS) asked La Alianza (LA), a nonprofit organization serving Boston's Latino population, to join with them to provide better child protective services to the community. The staff at LA had no experience with child protection cases, and did not trust that DSS would be able to provide the training and resources necessary for the partnership to succeed. While working with DSS provided an opportunity for increased funding, the lack of shared vision and trust between the two agencies led LA to question the benefits of collaboration.1
In the second case, the for-profit company Timberland Boots partnered with the nonprofit agency City Year to produce a line of clothing known as City Year Gear. City Year received financial support and a solid volunteer base from Timberland, while Timberland saw an increase in sales and publicity from association with the well-known nonprofit.  While the two organizations had a strong, mutually beneficial partnership in the early 1990's, a different story emerged when Timberland posted its first loss in 1995. Because of a lack of planning and vision for the partnership, company leadership was unsure of how to continue their collaboration with City Year when they encountered financial hardships.2
In the last case,  two nonprofit organizations- the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) and First Things First (FTF)- joined together to encourage voters to support two separate proposals (each benefiting one of the agencies) on a tax levy bill. SAM brought financial resources to the partnership, while FTF brought the manpower necessary to make voters aware of the issues. Unfortunately, this partnership began to suffer when FTF volunteers started to believe SAM volunteers were not carrying their fair share of the work and began to reconsider the benefits of the partnership. 3
There are a few key differences that emerge from these examples of collaboration across the different sectors. When partnering with public sector organizations, nonprofits can often benefit from the funding the government has to offer. However, the nonprofit must be flexible in order to meet the expectations set by the government in order to receive funding. These expectations may or may not align with the nonprofit's mission. When working with for-profits, nonprofits must realize the two organizations will automatically have different goals. The for-profit agency must produce a profit in order to survive. While partnerships with for-profits can provide valuable resources to the nonprofit, the vision of the agencies will never completely align. Partnerships between multiple nonprofits can be just as complicated. One agency may be able to contribute more to the partnership than the other, simply because they have more resources available. As a result, the partnership may not feel equal to the organizations involved, which can lead to a lack of trust. 4

There are a few common themes across the different sectors as well.  First, the necessity of a shared vision between organizations, whether in the nonprofit, for-profit, or public sector plays a role in all of these cases. Organizations need to agree on their mission and strategy in order to work together effectively.4 In addition, organizations must have mutual trust in one another in order to succeed, and  must keep communication open in order to discuss any issues that may arise.4

1 Varley, P. (1996). "Partners in Child Protective Services: The Department of Social Services and La Alianza Hispana." John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

2 Elias, J. (1996). "Timberland and Community Involvement." Harvard Business School.

3 "Funding Seattle's New Art Museum and Low-Income Housing: The Politics of Interest Groups and Tax Levies (A)" (1996). Cascade Center for Public Service, Public Service Curriculum Exchange.

4 Sharma, J. & Missey, A. (1998). "How I Learned to Stop Griping and Love Collaboration." Volunteer Center of Bergen County, Inc.