Thursday, April 6, 2017

Creating a Mutual, Well-Defined, Linked Collaboration

Collaboration is “a mutually beneficial and well-defined relationship entered into by two or more organizations to achieve common goals” (United Way). Dissecting this definition reveals key issues associated with collaboration: 1) “mutual” benefit or the balance of value each collaborator receives, 2) how “well-defined” the relationship is, and 3) the extent of “common goals” or aligning interests between partners. While these issues may be more salient for collaborations with certain sectors over others, overall, these issues are universal and are related to collaborations with any sector.  

Issue 1: Mutual Benefit – Resource Flow
First, regardless of the sector in which the partner organization operates, a successful collaboration must be “mutual” (United Way). More specifically, one factor for creating a “mutual” or balanced benefit involves considering resource directionality between participating organizations (Austin, Seitanidi). Both Timberland and the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) contributed financial resources or transferred assets to the nonprofit partner, and received associational value (increased visibility of product and grass-roots support, respectively) from their collaboration. However, the SAM case was a more one-directional resource flow, creating a less “mutual” benefit for SAM because of the associational value First Things First gained coupled with value of the financial resources SAM contributed. The La Alianza and DHS case provides another example of imbalanced resource flow. In this case, the negative associational value on La Alianza’s reputation if it collaborates with DHS and the human resource demands the DHS proposal requires create a large imbalance in both resource flow and value creation; La Alianza receives less, must give more, and has more to lose than DHS.
When the resource flow or benefits created are imbalanced, the relationship is often unsustainable (Austin, Seitanidi). Regardless of which sector it partners with, a nonprofit organization must consider this issue of resource flow and balanced value creation.

Issue 2: Well-defined Relationship
Another issue relevant for all collaborations with different sectors concerns defining the roles of collaborating organizations and the vision of the relationship. For both the City Year and La Alianza cases, the relationship with their partner organizations was not well-defined. For City Year, this created a potential conflict-of-interest situation as Timberland became overinvolved and joined City Year’s board of directors. A nonprofit partnering with a more powerful organization, such as in the La Alianza case, may feel unable to ask their partner to clarify roles or visions for the relationship, particularly when it may be heavily dependent on the funding included in the collaboration. This power difference can arise in partnering with any sector, not just a governmental organization. However, in designing and managing a collaboration, planning is needed to define the relationship, set direction and focus, and identify needed organizational structures and joint strategies (Sharman).

Issue 3: Shared Vision
Like defining the roles of the participating groups, a “shared vision of the collaboration and what is to be accomplished” is key to any successful collaboration (United Way). in the La Alianza case, the collaboration puts La Alianza at risk of mission creep as the goals of the partnership do not align with the organizational goals. ). This issue of mission alignment also appears in the SAM case in which the participating organizations were on socially polarized sides of the housing issue and initiated the collaboration not because of their aligned interests but because of fear of competition. Their shared “interests” were shallow roots for the collaboration; deep roots are needed to create stability (Austin, Seitanidi). In collaborating with any sector, linked interests is essential; a collaboration needs multiple, deep linkages and greater linked interests creates greater motivation for all participants (Austin, Seitanidi).

These cases revealed how similar collaborations are, regardless of what sector a nonprofit partners with. Imbalanced power or resource flow, lack of planning and defining roles, and misalignment in vision and values are risk factors for any collaboration. However, effective collaborations can help identify gaps in service, create opportunities for linking people from diverse backgrounds to share diverse perspectives, and mobilize action to effect needed change (United Way). When a collaboration is truly “mutual”, “well-defined”, and has “common goals”, “greater value can be created for participating organizations, individuals, and society” (Austin, Seitanidi). 

Austin, James E., Seitanidi, M.May. "Value Created Through Collaboration". From The Jossey-Bass handbook of nonprofit leadership and management. John Wiley & Sons, 2016.

Sharma, Janet. "How I Learned to Stop Griping and Love Collaboration". From Collaboration Handbook, Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

United Way. "Best Practices Summary: Collaboration, Coalition-Building and Merger".