Collaborations: Why They Fail
There are many reasons why organizations decide to collaborate: financial stability, services diversification and expansion, to avoid extinction and to share revenue and funding sources, to name a few. Collaborations can be short term or permanent, depending on the common objective that cannot be achieved by either party independently. They can be inter-sectional: a nonprofit organization and a government agency, a government agency and a for profit, and a nonprofit and a for profit. Inter-sectional collaborations are complex because of the unique constituencies they serve, their distinct stakeholders, and the funders to whom they are accountable. For profits such as Timberland answer to their shareholders, not their employees; profit is the driver of decisions. Service-oriented government agencies such as the Massachusetts Department of Social Services (MDSS) are accountable to legislative bodies and are funded by appropriations bills. Nonprofits like La Alianza Hispana (LAH) are accountable to their distinct cultural community, the clients that are served, and their donors.
The characteristics of successful collaborations among organizations vary according to their purpose. Some key components to consider are: 1) a shared purpose or vision, 2) a similar client-stakeholder base, 3) sufficient trust, 4) a strategic plan, and 5) inclusive communication, not just among top officers and management but employees, volunteers and stakeholders as well. Three case studies, the Seattle Art Museum, Timberland, and the Massachusetts Department of Social Services exemplify common challenges and why collaborations can weaken, fail or never move forward.
Two nonprofits, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) and the First Things First (FTF) Coalition united to avoid losing an election that would fund either the Seattle Art Museum Project or the First Things First low-income housing initiative. Theirs was a defensive collaboration, with a short-term, narrow shared vision to bring about a win-win outcome resulting in funding for both organizations. Their constituencies and missions were dissimilar, trust was tenuous and strategic campaign planning one-sided. Neither organization engaged with opposite party stakeholders. Communication by SAM did not flow outward to FTF’s extensive coalition or downward to its army of volunteers, and thereby justified their mistrust of SAM's motives. Nearing the election, SAM found that FTF had stronger public support.
Collaboration attempts between the Massachusetts Department of Social Services (MDSS) and the nonprofit La Alianza Hispana (LAH) didn’t work because of their opposing visions of child protection and what that meant. The constituencies that both organizations served were similar; however, LAH believed that the methods used by MDSS, removing children from their families, were culturally inappropriate and counterproductive to their mission of keeping families together. Also, subsumed by the bureaucratic structure of MDSS, LAH knew that it would not be treated as an equal, that it would lose its autonomy, identity and standing in the Hispanic community. According to LAH’s board chairman, there was no basis for trust; he threatened to resign if the board agreed to move forward.
In contrast, the partnership between the for profit Timberland Company and the nonprofit City Year was symbiotic, fueled by a similar passion for social justice remediated through volunteerism by City Year’s corps of volunteers, in which Timberland largely invested. For several years, the partnership enjoyed national attention, prestige and enormous profits for Timberland. Then the government withdrew its support for City Year’s national AmeriCore volunteer program, cutting one half of the nonprofit’s $14 million annual budget. Concurrently, the economy declined and Timberland’s profit margin collapsed, to the extent that many employees were laid off. The employees were resentful of City Year, who they felt had caused the layoffs.
The collaboration ultimately failed. It wanted for a strategic plan for financial sustainability to offset a disproportionate reliance on Timberland for funding. There was no long-term vision of the partnership; employees and stakeholders had no understanding of what the partnership entailed. Communication between the organizations was at the management level, with no widespread communication of a vision at all levels. Employees were involved only at the volunteer level. It is no wonder they were resentful.
Examples such as these can be used in positive ways to forewarn against failure.
 Yankey, J.A., Jacobus, B.W. and Koney, K. M., Merging Nonprofit Organizations: The Art and Science of the Deal, Mandel Center for Nonprofit Organizations, Cleveland, Ohio, 2001.
 Timberland and Community Involvement, Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston, MA, August 1996.
 Partners in Child Protection Services: The Department of Social Services and La Alianza Hispana, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 1996.
 “Best Practices Summary: Collaboration, Coalition-Building and Merger,” United Way Worldwide, 2008.
 Funding Seattle’s Art Museum and Low-Income Housing: The Politics of Interest Groups and Tax Levies, Cascade Center for Public Service, Curriculum Exchange, 1996.