Friday, April 10, 2015

Cross-sector collaboration: Key Issues to Consider

To collaborate or not to collaborate?

Collaboration for nonprofits can take a variety of forms.  Often thought of a spectrum between more and less involved, collaborations can range from a full merger to simply an afflication (Yankey and Willen 2010).  Different leves of mutual involvement can mean different costs, risks, integration, and changes to autonomy for the organizations involved.

Collaboration is an important consideration for nonprofits.  Collaboration offers the chance to share resources, spread information and ideas, build capacity, better respond to community needs, achieve synergies, address outside competitive forces,  and even ensure survival of each partner (Yankey and Willen 2010).  Geri Stengel highlights another advantage of collaboration: As the funding landscape shrinks for some types of nonprofits, collaboration can ease funding issues--especially as foundations increasingly see the value of collaboration and are often willing to provide funding for the process.

However, with all these possible benefits, why are not more nonprofits entering into some form of collaboration?

Challenges of Collaborating for Nonprofits
Even though collaboration can offer the benefits listed above, I want to be frank that successful collaboration is challenging and requires a lot of work from all parties involved. 

Some of the challenges include:
  • Finding a partner with a similar or compatible mission and future direction
  • Overcoming turf issues
  • Having access to and dedicating the time and resources needed
  • Investing in communicating effectively 
  • Planning upfront for the partnership and the challenges it poses
  • Creating trust between the organizations
All of these challenges also hint at some keys to make a collaboration successful.  Before elaborating on key tips, I want to highlight further challenges of partnerships across sectors.

Particular Challenges of Collaborating Across Sectors:
Partnerships can involve a nonprofit working across sectors.  Partnerships across sectors can include a nonprofit working with a government organization, a for-profit organization, or, I am including in the mix, a nonprofit with a radically different mission.

All of these across sector partnerships can be viable and can be valuable.  However, working with organizations that may have fundamentally different values, missions, outlooks add to the challenges of working together. 

The case studies listed at the end of this post offer examples of each of these across sector collaborations.  They highlight the different missions and goals of each party. For example, in the case by Fortier (1996), the Seattle Art Museum and housing advocates team up to achieve passage of two funding initiatives.  In the case by Varley (1996), a government agency wants a nonprofit to take on a new program the nonprofit has no experience with.  In the case by Elias (1996), Timberland, a for-profit shoe company teams with the fledgling nonprofit, City Year.

Now for some tips for successful collaboration below.

Key Tips for Successfully Collaboration:

From both Sharma and Missey (1998) and United Way Worldwide (2008), here are some key tips for successful collaborations:
  • Process is REALLY important
  • Plan!  Outline the goals, steps, etc. of the partnership
  • Create a written document of the partnership
  • Communicate!  (Not just at the beginning but throughout the partnership)
  • Build mutual respect, understanding, and trust
  • Each party must have a stake in the partnership
  • All involved feel that the partnership involves equitable giving of resources
For further reading, this website provides resources for nonprofit collaboration and might be useful to those considering or already in the midst of a partnership.

With careful planning and implement, collaboration can help nonprofits achieve their goals. 

Case Examples
Elias, Jaan. 1996. Timberland and Community Involvement. Supervisor James Austin. Harvard Business School Publishing. Boston, MA.

Fortier, Suzanne. 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.

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

Other References
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. 2008. "Best Practices Summary: Collaboration, Coalition-Building and Merger."  

Yankey, John.A. and Carol K. Willen. 2010. Collaboration and Strategic Alliances in The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Renz, David O, ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 375-400.