Thursday, April 9, 2015

Stop, Collaborate and Listen (But Not Necessarily in that Order)

Ah, the wisdom of early 90’s rapper Vanilla Ice. His lyrics were likely not referring to the exciting world of nonprofits, but we can certainly connect them to a growing trend in this sector: collaborations and strategic alliances. As the Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management points out, nonprofit partnerships began to grow in the 1980s, when social service agencies began facing increased competition from the for-profit sector. By forming alliances and coalitions, they were able to pool their resources in order to better respond to the needs of their communities. Collaboration between organizations has only become more common, and now frequently stretches across the private, nonprofit, and governmental sectors.

Of course, such collaborations are not without their challenges. As the Jossey-Bass Handbook states, they can be incredibly costly in terms of time and energy spent, as well as funds and other resources.  “Turf issues” can easily rise as roles shift, and the organizational culture of the agencies involved may not mesh easily.  Furthermore, the mission, vision, and values of each organization may be incompatible with one another. As a “Best Practices Summary” from the United Way points out, successful collaborations are built on a shared vision of the collaboration, trust between all parties, shared decision-making among everyone involved, shared resources, and a strong strategic plan.

In class, we evaluated three case studies that explored the opportunities and challenges of collaboration between sectors. Read on for key insights from these cases.

The Massachusetts Department of Social Services (MDSS) and La Alianza Hispana. This case explored collaboration between the nonprofit and government sectors. Facing criticism for cultural incompetency, MDSS asked La Alianza (a community organization) to take over managing cases for their Hispanic/Latino clients. As discussed earlier on this blog, it is becoming more and more common for the government to contract out social services to outside agencies. A collaboration between these two groups could, on the one hand, provide opportunities for improved handling of social services cases in the Hispanic community. On the other hand, the challenges involved were numerous. Staff at La Alizana were not trained social workers. There was a lack of trust, a lack of clarity, and a lack of shared decision-making between the organizations. Collaboration would be tough.

The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) and First Things First (FTF). In this case, two nonprofits formed a coalition in an attempt to pass a tax levy. Despite being very different organizations, they believed that they would have a better chance of success if they pooled their resources. SAM had more monetary resources while FTF had a lot of human capitol. The challenges in this case included unclear roles and expectations as well as a lack of trust. 

Timberland and City Year. This case involved the collaboration between a nonprofit organization and a for-profit company. As discussed in earlier blog posts, for-profit companies can benefit by working with nonprofits because it improves their image. Timberland donated a lot of money to City Year and worked with them on shoe designs. One of the biggest challenges of this case was a lack of a long-term strategic plan; they were unsure how to continue their collaboration in the face of financial stress and staffing changes.

     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.” Boston. Harvard Kennedy School, 1996.

     Electronic Hallway. “Funding Seattle's Art Museum and Low-Income Housing: The Politics of Interest Groups and Tax Levies.” Seattle. Public Service Curriculum Exchange, 1996. 
     Yankey, John A. and Carol K. Willen. "Collaboration and Strategic Alliances." The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Ed. David O. Renz. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. 375-401. Print.