“Collaboration is not just another organizational skill. It is the hallmark—the distinguishing characteristic—of the future focused nonprofit.” —United Way Worldwide, 2008
In the nonprofit world, it is rare to find an issue with a simple fix. Rather, problems that nonprofits seek to address are increasingly complex. Take, for example, the issue of child maltreatment in our country—an issue that hundreds of nonprofit organizations across the country work to address. Obviously, there is no “quick fix” solution to child maltreatment; we can’t simply tell caregivers “don’t abuse your kids” and expect the problem to go away. Instead, decreasing child maltreatment incidence rates requires a broad spectrum of interventions (primary, secondary, and tertiary) at all levels of society (individual, community, and systems levels) and involving a plethora of services (parenting education, assurance of quality child care, public awareness campaigns, health services, child welfare interventions… the list goes on and on). Clearly, no single organization can meet all of these needs alone—almost definitely not at a community-level, and certainly not at more macro-levels. Instead, nonprofits who want to make large scale impacts (on this, or any other issue) must consider collaboration (Sharma & Missey, 2008; Varley, 1996).
Collaboration happens when groups make a commitment to work together toward a common objective (United Way Worldwide, 2008; Yankey & Willen, 2005). These collaborations can happen both within or across the three sectors of society (i.e., nonprofits, government, and for-profits), and, when done correctly, help to conserve resources, address issues in a more comprehensive way, identify service gaps, reduce service duplications, and “reduce conflicts by squarely addressing issues of competition and ‘turf’” (United Way Worldwide, 2008). Whatever the nature of the collaboration, success depends on developing and promoting a shared vision, a sound process, open communication, an atmosphere of trust, effective leadership, and, of course, hard work at both the procedural and systems levels (Sharma & Missey, 2008; Yankey & Willen, 2005).
Of course, collaboration comes with its own set of challenges. Yankey and Willen (2005) identify the following challenges to strategic alliance formation and implementation:
- Incompatible mission, vision, values, and/or culture. This issue is perhaps most apparent in collaborations across sectors, where each sector’s role is, by definition, unique and separate from that of the others. Take, for example, the collaboration between City Year (a nonprofit) and Timberland (a for-profit). From the get-go, there were issues of buy-in from both organizations due to perceived mission mismatch (Elias, 1996).
- Egos and turf issues. In our competitive society, many individuals and organizations believe that organizational survival should be pursued at any cost, and that, to be viable, an organization must remain totally independent. Failure to place a “shared mission and the good of the community above loyalty to one’s own agency” can derail potentially beneficial alliances (Yankey & Willen, 2005, p. 267)
- Cost. Both time costs (e.g., operationalizing the collaboration, establishing roles) and funding costs (e.g., costs of facilitation, systems integration), can be a major barrier to collaboration. Additionally, there may be differences of opinions around prioritizing funding (see, for example, the case of Seattle’s Art Museum and First Things First where there were differences of opinion over prioritizing funding needs) (Public Service Curriculum Exchange, 1996).
Despite these barriers, strategic alliances remain “the modern reality of collaborative problem-solving” (Salamon, 1999, p. 179) in response to society’s needs, and nonprofits should strive to be increasingly capable of working collaboratively with the business sector, the government, and each other.
United Way Worldwide. (2008). Best practices summary: Collaboration, coalition-building and merger.
Sharma, J. & Missey, A. (2008). How I learned to stop griping… And love collaboration. National Community Service Organization.
Varley, P. (1996). Partners in Child Protection Services: Department of Social Services and La Alianza Hispana. Kennedy School of Government Case Program.
Yankey, J. A. & Willen, C. K. (2005). Strategic Alliances. In R. D. Herman (Ed.), The Jossey-Bass handbook of nonprofit leadership and management (pp. 254-273). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Elias, J. (1996). Timberland and community involvement. Harvard Business School.
Public Service Curriculum Exchange (1996). Funding Seattle’s Art Museum and low-income housing: The politics of interest groups and tax levies.
Salamon, L. M. (1999). America’s nonprofit sector: A primer. (2nd ed.) New York, NY: Foundation Center.