Nonprofit collaborations have proliferated in recent years, both in number and array of collaboration styles. Nonprofits can partner intersectorally; government, private, other nonprofits, the sky’s the limit! These collaborations can also take a huge variety of forms including co-sponsorship, federation, coalition, consortium, network, joint venture, parent-subsidiary, merger and consolidation (Yankey, Jacobus, and Koney 2001). This diversity makes it hard to prescribe best practices for collaborations, but there are some key threads that we can pull out from the experiences of various nonprofits who have undergone collaborative processes.
Do what you do
Keep your mission. Play to your strengths. Incompatible missions are a primary challenge in collaboration (Yankey and Willen 2010). Organizations have to know where they stand and what goals they hope to achieve through this partnership. A side-by-side analysis early in the exploratory process of a collaboration can often help to hash out these details (Yankey and Willen 2010). This doesn’t mean that organizations with very different missions can’t collaborate; in fact it’s sometimes successful for very different organizations to band together if they have a goal in common. An example of this occurred in Seattle in a collaborative ballot initiative between an arts museum and a low-income housing project which secured funding for facilities expansion for both groups (Fortier 1996). The shared goal of winning the vote was in line with both of their very different missions, so it worked.
Balance internal and external environments
Many collaborations arise out of a desire to strategically address external pressures like increasing funding or service provision. A favorable political and social environment for the merger is important for success (Sharma and Missey 1998). However success also depends upon keeping staff informed and securing their buy-in. Internal organizational culture differences can be a challenge in creating a successful partnership (Yankey and Willen 2010). This was a key consideration in a case where a Hispanic community center considered taking on child abuse case management from the state protective services in Boston. Of primary concern was how this work would negatively affect their reputation in the community and thus their ability to carry out their mission. Significant doubts among board members about the benefits of the partnership also raised red flags (Varley 1996). While this analysis doesn’t bode well for the collaboration, it is a good demonstration of how an organization should consider the full impacts of partnership beyond financial gain.
Plan, plan, PLAN
Going into a collaboration, organizations should know exactly what they hope to get out of the partnership, how they intend to go about doing it, and how these plans support the missions of the organizations and will strategically advance the position of both in their communities (Yankey, Jacobus and Koney 2001). Developing a sound process for collaboration with clear roles and policy guidelines can go a long way towards to smoothing what may otherwise be a difficult transition (Yankey and Willen 2010, Sharma and Missey 1998). The negative consequences of entering into a partnership without taking time to plan the intention and implementation the union are demonstrated in the story of collaboration between the shoe manufacturer Timberland and the community service program City Year. This partnership began well and expanded quickly, but without a plan to guide the growth and intention of the collaboration, tensions between and within the two organizations eventually ended the partnership (Elias 1996).
Because there are so many possible combinations of sectors and types of collaborations, there is no cookie cutter process for pursuing a strategic alliance. But keeping these three things in mind will help organizations choose valuable alliances and succeed in their implementation.
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.
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.
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.
Yankey, John A., Barbara Wester Jacobus, and Kelly McNally Koney. 2001. Merging Nonprofit Organizations: The Art and Science of the Deal. Mandel center for Nonprofit Organizations: Cleveland, OH.
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. 375-400. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA.