Thursday, April 9, 2015

Collaboration: A Balancing Act Between the Sectors?

Earlier this year I have blogged about how different values shape the three sectors: the public, for profit and nonprofit sector. I argue that there are fundamental differences in core values. While I still believe this to be true, collaboration between the sectors can serve as a fruitful way of uniting forces in order to achieve a common goal. It might even serve the purpose of complementing the different values found in each sector, and as such partnering up can be a way of compensating for weaknesses.

Collaboration offers opportunities for reducing costs, building synergies and crafting more holistic solutions by merging diverse approaches (Yankey & Willen, 2010; United Way Worldwide, 2008). Despite the long list of benefits a collaborative strategy can entail, there are numerous pitfalls to be navigated as well. Broadly collaboration has been called “the new strategic planning”, and it is without a doubt key to plan strategically if the benefits are to exceed the costs (Yankey & Willen, 2010). The following three cases will help to demonstrate some pros and cons of collaboration.

La Alianza Hispana & Massachusetts Department of Social Services
The proposal for collaboration between La Alianza and DSS is a great example of how organizations in different sectors can potentially work together to complement each other.
La Alianza could provide DSS with specialized knowledge and a community outreach most government agencies can’t obtain by themselves. On the other hand partnering up with DSS would allow La Alianza to potentially have a more thorough impact in their clientele’s lives by giving them legal capacity and thus achieving a broader mission. The public sector is often characterized by an underlying rigidness, which collaboration with a nonprofit could serve to loosen up. On the other hand the nonprofit could gain access to a broader range of tools.

In this case the risks include mission drift, since their missions may not be adequately aligned, and uncertainty regarding funding. For La Alianza there is also the risk of loosing the trust they have earned in the community.

Timberland and City Gear
Among the recent trends affecting the private sector is a push for a more socially responsible production. Since profit is the main purpose the most liable and legitimate way of realizing this may be by increasing the collaboration with nonprofits. On the other hand many nonprofits currently face issues of funding. Neoliberal policies have resulted in program cuts and the recession in 2008 has further increased the economic pressure on the sector (Hall, 2010; Yankey & Willen, 2010).

The partnership between Timberland and City Gear was for a period of time exemplary of the intersection of profit and altruistic purposes served in the nonprofit sector, benefitting both organizations. However it turned out to be very fragile in times of distress, especially due to a lack of planning. Also this case questions whether collaboration serves to create mutual understanding in sectors that operate with divergent goals and values.

Seattle Art Museum and First Things First
The final case is an example of two nonprofits forming a coalition in order to achieve public support for a referendum that would ensure a tax levy – The Seattle Art Museum and First Things First. Trust was the main issue here along with flaws in the role distribution. For most nonprofits their mission is at the heart of the organization, as opposed to much of the public sector, where bureaucracy and regulations creates the framework for a lot of operations, and the private sector, where profit is the main driver. This may complicate matters for nonprofits working collaboratively, since it often entails giving up some degree of autonomy or compromising, which could create opposition when working with individuals who are highly committed to the cause (Yankey & Willen, 2010). 

It is less clear-cut what each party brings to the table in this case compared to collaborative efforts across sectors, which increases the need for a thorough side-by-side analysis and strategic planning, when two nonprofits are uniting forces.

Elias, Jean (1996).  "Timberland and Community Involvement."  Harvard Business School
"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
Hall, Peter Dobkin (2010). Historical Perspectives on Nonprofit Organizations in the United States. In: Renz, David O, ed. 2010. The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA.
United Way Worldwide (2008).  "Best Practices Summary: Collaboration, Coalition-Building and Merger."
Varley, Pamela (1996).  "Partners in Child Protective Services: The Department of Social Services and La Alianza Hispana."  John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
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.