Thursday, April 9, 2015

Collaboration: What to know before joining forces

Collaboration seems simple enough: two organizations work together to reach a common goal. In practice, the process requires thoughtful, strategic planning and action. Collaboration across sectors introduces the potential for unique challenges and opportunities. Below I'll address three cases of collaboration between organizations and lessons to draw from each.

1. The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) and First Things First (FTF) 
FTF, which advocated for affordable housing, and SAM were both Seattle-based nonprofits. These seemingly unrelated organizations began collaborating when they both hoped to receive funding from the local government. Both organizations were to be listed on the ballot of a September 16 tax levy referendum. The two organizations realized that by working against the other, they were both likely to fail. FTF had a strong, active volunteer base. SAM had political connections and funds available to promote the vote. The nonprofits decided to form a coalition and advocate for funding for both organizations. They were working for a common goal: creating a better seattle. This collaboration was beneficial for both nonprofits. The United Way Best Practices Summary identifies a number of benefits of collaboration, including:
-"Conserve resources by avoiding unnecessary duplication of services
-Share similar concerns while being enriched by diverse perspectives that different members from varied backgrounds bring to the collaboration" (United Way Worldwide).
 The SAM and FTF coalition encompasses both of these benefits. Rather than enlisting volunteers to advocate on behalf of SAM and different volunteers to advocate on behalf of FTF, the organizations were able to combine their resources to form a single team of volunteers. Further, the different kinds of expertise that members of the two organizations brought to the coalition contributed knowledge of the political climate, voter interests and turnout, among other important factors.

2. Massachusetts Department of Social Services (MDSS) and La Alianza Hispana (LAH)
This case provides insight into the choices that organizations must make before collaborating. MDSS, a government agency, invited LAH, a nonprofit, to collaborate to provide culturally sensitive service in the area of child protection. This decision would provide LAH with additional funding from MDSS and offered an opportunity for the nonprofit to expand. LAH served as a supportive resource for the Latino community. Collaboration would put them in the position of a regulatory body. In her article on collaboration, Janet Sharma identifies factors that contribute to the success of a collaboration. One of these is a shared vision. Although MDSS and LAH both worked to promote the wellbeing of children in the community, they operated in a very different way. LAH's vision meant serving the community in a supportive role, while MDSS served in an actively regulatory, supervisory role.

3. City Year and Timberland
For a time, the nonprofit, City Year, and the for-profit business, Timberland, formed a collaboration. The organizations worked together to advocate for social justice. Timberland was able to advertise their partnership with City Year to present themselves as an ethical company seeking to have a positive impact on the community. City Year benefited from financial support as well as donations of staff uniforms. The United Way Best Practices article identifies a key to successful collaboration as requiring the participation of individuals who have a stake in the collaboration. "They must agree that the process of collaborating is as valuable as the results" (United Way Worldwide). While the organizations had a shared vision, the details of the process of collaboration was not as clear. When Timberland encountered financial challenges, the business's commitment to City Year was challenged and many stakeholders did not the support the collaboration. In this instance, all relevant members were not made a part of the collaboration process and this affected the collaboration negatively.

Lessons to draw from these cases include that collaboration is not always a good idea, organizations in a collaboration should have a shared vision, ensure that relevant stakeholders are involved in the process and that when organizations collaborate well, they can do more together than they could separately.


Fortier, S. 1996. Funding Seattle’s Art Museum and Low-Income Housing: The Politics of Interest Groups and Tax Levies (A). Supervisor Jon Brock. Cascade Center for Public Service: Public Service Curriculum Exchange.

Sharma, Janet and Amanda Missey. 1998. “How I learned to Stop Griping . . . And Love Collaboration.” From a presentation at the National Community Service Conference. June 30, 1998. New Orleans, LA.

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.” Boston. Harvard Kennedy School, 1996.