Thursday, April 9, 2015

Collaboration: More Than Just a Buzzword

Collaboration is one of those buzzwords you hear in every business meeting. People always want to collaborate, or leverage synergies, or create pathways to implement things, or yadda yadda yadda. It all sounds good from the outside, but it’s not that simple. When you’re talking about collaborating, it’s important to dive a little bit deeper into what goes into the process. If you’re thinking of partnering with another organization, whether in the same sector or a different one, here are a few things to keep in mind.
1.    Why are you looking to collaborate?
First and foremost, take a step back and clearly list out what gaps you find yourselves encountering as you try to fulfill your mission (United Way Worldwide, 2). If there’s no clear gap you can see, think a bit more about why you’re looking to collaborate. There are definitely other reasons to do so, but it might be time to really weigh the costs with the benefits. As the United Way points out, you can’t expect cost savings from a merger, so the benefits have to be worth it (United Way of Dane County, 1). For example, a government agency like the Massachusetts Department of Social Services may be looking to partner with (or contract out to) a nonprofit for specific services in order to lighten their load, but it may not always be in the best interest of the nonprofit in terms of their mission, workload, or finances (Varley).

Especially when the organizations are not in the same sector, it's crucial to make sure that you know why you're making this move. Each sector has its strengths and benefits to bring to the table -- a government agency may be more financial stable or have resources a nonprofit can't access; a nonprofit may have connections in the community that an agency couldn't even imagine creating -- but if what you're organization is missing isn't filled by these complementary benefits, maybe a collaboration isn't the right way to go.
2.     Who is going to make all the decisions?
When your organizations merge, there are tons of nuts and bolts you will need to consider -- from sharing and analyzing the finances and legal ramifications of a partnership to reorganizing and rebranding. It’s crucial to think strategically about who needs to be in the room from both sides of the partnership to make these decisions. Start with a small committee to manage the merger, and make sure they've got their rules established before anything else starts -- confidentiality agreements, basic ground rules, necessary subcommittees, milestones and timelines (United Way Worldwide, 5). It may be necessary to bring in an outsider to function as a neutral force to manage this team, especially when both parties have some conflicting views or are unlikely partners. When attempting to bridge the gap between supporters of a new art museum and advocates for a low-income housing project in the same area of downtown Seattle, for example, the First Things First coalition found this strategy particularly effective to ensure that everyone felt comfortable as the campaign moved forward (Electronic Hallway). 

If you're merging between sectors, this can get more complicated. Government agencies may have restrictions because of legislation or funding that nonprofits don't have to worry about. A private company might have a CEO making decisions without having to worry about multiple levels of red tape, which can speed up a process and open the partnership up for a freer exchange of ideas and perhaps funding, while a nonprofit may have to run all changes through a board for approval or make sure donors are on board with the new plans, which could quash some ideas. Keep in mind the challenges and opportunities that your potential collaboration partners might have, especially given their internal structures and obligations, when building this partnership.

3. So you've gotten the ball rolling. Now what?

Once you've got things moving (hopefully smoothly), you’re not off the hook yet.

First, make sure you've written everything down! It’s too easy to get caught up in the excitement of a new partnership only to realize that you didn't really agree on everything you thought you did. A written merger or partnership document is essential to preventing uncomfortable or even downright disastrous disagreements.
Second, get ready to evaluate! Your collaboration committee should have created a set of goals, milestones, and timelines to follow. After a set period, say 12-18 months, take a step back and see how you’re doing with respect to each of those. If things are going well, it may be time to expand in terms of resources or geography. If you haven’t hit those milestones, it’s time to decide whether to adjust and move forward or disband (Yankey and Willen, 387).

Ready to go? 

So much goes into a collaboration that it’s no wonder a clear definition is so hard to come by. Despite this difficulty, a partnership can be worth its weight in gold. But before you jump into something new, make sure you've done your due diligence.


Electronic Hallway. Funding Seattle's Art Museum and Low-Income Housing: The Politics of Interest Groups and Tax Levies. Case Study. Seattle. Public Service Curriculum Exchange, 1996.

United Way of Dane County. "Topics for Discussion When Considering Merger." n.d.

United Way Worldwide. "Best Practices Summary: Collaboration, Coalition-Building and Merger". 2008.

Varley, Pamela. Partners in Child Protection Services: The Department of Social Services and La Alianza Hispana (A). Case Study. Boston. Harvard Kennedy School, 1996.

Yankey, John A. and Carol K. Willen. "Collaboration an Strategic Alliances." The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Ed. David O. Renz. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. 375-401. Print.