Thursday, April 9, 2015

Cross-Sector Collaboration: What are the Dynamics at Play?

Collaborations of nonprofits both within the nonprofit sector and outside it have gained momentum.1 While collaborations may promote efficiencies particularly useful when resources become scarce, they more generally serve as a strategy to be considered for facilitating organizational success and mission attainment.1 Through examination of three separate cases (a nonprofit/for-profit2, nonprofit/nonprofit3, and nonprofit/government4 collaboration) we discussed in class, we can see some of the dynamics at play across collaborations as well as some of the unique issues associated with specific types of collaborations.

Across collaborations there were a number of similarities, but three of the most salient issues revolved around the collaboration serving the missions and needs of the organizations involved, getting buy-in from individuals within both organizations at all levels, and trust. While a collaboration between organizations from any sector may (and likely should5) entail the creation of a specific mission for the collaboration, the cases examined demonstrated a need for the collaboration to ultimately serve the original missions of the partner organizations to ensure the organizations are meeting their respective objectives. Relevancy of the collaboration to the missions and needs of both organizations also facilitates investment from individuals within both organizations at all levels. Such investment and buy-in is necessary in order to realize the full potential of the collaboration and to succeed in the collaborative effort. Dissent within either organization can undermine the work of the collaboration, jeopardize relationships with stakeholders, and threaten the overall success of either or both organizations. Buy-in across both organizations also facilitates trust which is necessary for successful collaboration6. Trust itself focuses on the belief that each organization has the collaboration’s best interests at heart and that each organization will be working actively and equally to help the other in the collaboration. Trust also encompasses a sense of loyalty to the collaboration which is not obstructed or undermined by loyalty to one of the partner organizations.

While similar issues can come into play with any collaboration, unique opportunities and challenges presented themselves with specific types of collaboration partners. In the nonprofit/for-profit case one of the clearest opportunities was the inherent complementary nature of the different sectors’ strengths (i.e., the capital of for-profits and the goodwill associated with nonprofits). A particular challenge in this type of partnership flowed from this opportunity, with different missions (i.e., making a profit versus making a social impact) and ways of measuring success more likely running into conflict or creating tension. In the nonprofit/nonprofit collaboration one of the most powerful opportunities presented was the potential to expand the support base of both nonprofits’ initiatives given their respective constituencies and the public interest in their respective issues. A particular challenge was fostering trust between organizations which may be particularly salient for this type of collaboration given strong ties to the parent organization and potentially different or scarce resources. Finally, in the nonprofit/government case one of the greatest opportunities was improving competency in service provision to local communities, with the nonprofit having the cultural expertise and community connections necessary to improve a specific aspect of service provision. The challenges presented with this type of collaboration, however, are the pressures government tends to place on organizations to do more with less and a level of expectations that can easily exceed organizational capacity.

Collaborations hold huge potential for improving the capabilities of organizations and agencies across sectors to succeed in fulfilling their missions; however, they are a strategy for the accomplishment of this end and as with any other strategy the opportunities and challenges they present must be thoroughly evaluated and considered before they are entered into.


1. Yankey, John A. & Willen Carol K. "Collaboration and Strategic Alliances." The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management 3. Ed. David Renz. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. 375-400. Print.

2. Fortier, Suzanne & Brock, Jon. “Funding Seattle’s art museum and low-income housing: The politics of interest groups and tax levies.” The Public Service Curriculum Exchange, 1996.

3. Elias, Jaan & Austin, James. “Timberland and community involvement.” Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 1996.

4. Varley, Pamela. “Partners in child protection services: The Department of Social Services and La Alianza Hispana.” President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1996.

5. United Way World Wide. “Best practices summary: Collaboration, coalition-building, and merger.” 2008

6. Sharma, Janet. “How I learned to stop griping…and love collaboration.” National Community Service Conference. New Orleans, LA, 1998