Organizations operating in the public, private and non-profit sectors have unique characteristics, resources and goals. This suggests that cross-sector (or intra-sector) collaboration can be an effective way to maximize output or impact, provided the organizations involved utilize best practices to deal with the challenges specific to collaboration.
I’ll compare, and contrast, three case studies to discuss these opportunities and challenges. The first case involves the corporation, Timberland, and the non-profit organization, City Year. Timberland’s COO, Jeffrey Swartz, wanted to improve the company’s community involvement, and the partnership he formed with City Year was seen by many observers as a “new paradigm” in cooperation between private and nonprofit organizations. Under Swartz’s leadership, Timberland made significant financial contributions to City Year, helping to solidify City Year’s revenue stream and forming an inextricable link between the two organizations. Timberland even used its expertise in creating quality apparel to create a City Year product line, which helped both organizations achieve greater visibility. When Timberland’s sales began to level-off, and City Year’s government funding began to dry up, the collaboration encountered challenges. Among the nineteen factors influencing successful collaborations identified in the handbook, Collaboration: What Makes It Work is having sufficient funds (Mattessich, p. 138). City Year and Timberland understood that for this ‘new paradigm’ to work, both organizations would have to be financially stable, independent of what was happening in the others’ business. Ultimately, however, this collaboration was successful because the organizations shared a common passion, which enabled each party to reap benefits.
We can contrast this case with the collaboration between two nonprofit organizations in Seattle: the Seattle Art Museum and the housing coalition, First Things First. John Yankey’s piece on the ‘Art and Science of the Deal’ for collaboration between nonprofits lists several criteria for identifying potential collaborators, including, “Similar mission and values” and “consistent vision for the future” (Yankey, p. 19). In the Seattle case, the two organizations failed to check any of these boxes: their missions were drastically different, and some felt they were even diametrically opposed. Yet the organizations enjoyed a successful collaboration because they worked hard on the relationship, soothing over the wrinkles of mistrust by allocating the resources specific to each organization in an effective way. The Museum used its political clout to win over government officials wary of the First Things First coalition’s apparent un-readiness for a major project, and the housing coalition used its grassroots volunteers and strong public standing to help push a ballot initiative over the necessary threshold.
However, a strong link in mission or values doesn’t always lead to a successful collaboration. The Massachusetts Department of Social Services (DSS), responsible for protecting the welfare of abused and neglected children, sought to partner with La Alianza, a nonprofit serving the Hispanic community, in order to add an element of ‘cultural sensitivity’ to the public organization’s work. La Alianza, whose mission was “focused on meeting basic needs to enable our constituents to take further steps up the social and economic ladder” (Varley, p. 4), clearly had goals similar those held by the public organization, and had been aware of cultural insensitivity on the part of DSS in some of its interactions with members of the Hispanic community. However, in a similar situation to that of the City Year/Timberland partnership, the funding model offered a significant complication. La Alianza’s leaders wondered if the ‘block grant’ they were to receive under the partnership would sufficiently cover its costs, while DSS was unsure of what it could realistically expect from La Alianza, and questioned its ability to step in and offer help post-merger.
These examples demonstrate that there are both opportunities and challenges associated with collaboration. A clear takeaway from all three cases is the importance of strategic planning and communication: if the issues discussed above are thoroughly accounted, and planned, for before and during the collaboration, organizations can achieve greater impact by utilizing the unique resources possessed by differential organizations.
Elias, Jaan. Timberland and Community Involvement. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 1996
Varley, Pamela. Partners in Child Protection Services: The Department of Social Services and La Alianza Hispana. Boston: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1996.
Mattessich, Paul; Monsey, Barbara. Collaboration: What Makes It Work. St. Paul: Wilder
Yankey, John; Jacobus, Barbara Wester; Koney, Kelly McNally. Merging Nonprofit
Organizations: The Art and Science of the Deal. Cleveland: Mandel Center for Nonprofit Organizations
Best Practices Summary: Collaboration, Coalition-Building and Merger. United Way Worldwide, 2008.