As technological advances and economic changes blur the boundaries between our societies traditional sectors, the importance of collaboration to the nonprofit industry continues to grow. Successful collaboration can offer many benefits; however, these partnerships also come with a significant set of challenges. A strong relationship relies on many factors: establishing trust, effective communication, having a shared vision and resources, and incorporating shared decision making and strategic planning amongst all parties (United Way, 2008).
A well-functioning partnership will include many of these, and missing even one or two aspects can result in significant roadblocks. Unique challenges as well as opportunities may also exist depending on the collaboration in question. Below we will look at three different cases: a nonprofit-nonprofit collaboration, a nonprofit-public collaboration, and a nonprofit-private collaboration. Together these cases offer insight into how collaborations can succeed as well as how they can fail.
1.) The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) and First Things First (FTF)
These two seemingly dissimilar Seattle based nonprofits formed a coalition in order to increase their chances of receiving funding via a tax levy referendum that was being held in the city. The collaboration was advantageous due to the fact that each side could bring unique resources to the table. The museum held significant political capital, while First Things First provided a large volunteer base. Due to the substantial differences in both the mission and constituencies of these two organizations however, there was a significant cultural gap to be overcome. The partnership encountered problems stemming from a lack of trust and mutual respect. Due to ineffective communication the roles of each group were not properly understood by stakeholders (Electronic Hallway, 1996). This highlights the importance of strategic planning and open communication on both sides of the partnership, especially when the collaborators come from vastly different backgrounds.
2.) The Massachusetts Department of Social Services (DSS) and La Alianza Hispana
This was an an example of a potential collaboration between the nonprofit and public sector. DSS was looking to improve its reputation and credibility among the Hispanic community in Boston. They sought out a partnership with La Alianza, an organization with deep roots in the city’s Hispanic community. DSS could benefit from La Alianza’s cultural knowledge and positive reputation, while also providing the organization with funding and other valuable resources that could be of assistance to a nonprofit. Although each side had similar concerns the collaboration was unbalanced. There was an absence of shared stake in the partnership by both agencies, as well as a shared decision making model (Fortier, 1996). Once again the value of communication and creating a collaborative environment can be seen in this case.
3.) Timberland Shoe Company and City Year
The final case presents us with an example of a nonprofit-private collaboration. Jeffrey Shwartz, the COO of Timberland, had always dreamed of giving back to his community. So when officials from the nonprofit City Year sought the company’s assistance, he jumped at the chance to create a partnership. City Year benefitted through an increase in resources brought about by Timberlands donations, as well as the higher visibility achieved through collaborative projects such as the creation “City Year Gear” (Elias, 1996). For Timberland, the partnership offered the company a chance to improve its brand image. Consumers increasingly viewed Timberland as a responsible corporation dedicated to community service, which had positive effects on both sales and profits. The collaboration faced difficulties in 1995 due to the financial hardships of both organizations. In this case, a failure to strategically plan and identify external threats hurt both sides and ultimately weakened the collaboration.
The above examples allow us to examine how collaborations may present different benefits as well as challenges across the three sectors. Ultimately there is no single formula for a successful collaboration. That being said, establishing a strong relationship built on trust and communication, as well as utilizing strategic planning, can go a long way towards ensuring an advantageous partnership for both sides.
Elias, J. 1996. Timberland and Community Involvement. Supervisor James Austin. Harvard Business School Publishing. Boston, MA.
Fortier, S. 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.
United Way. 2008. “Best Practices Summary: Collaboration, Coalition-Building, and Merger.”
Varley, P. 1996. Partners in Child Protection Services: The Department of Social Services and La Alianza Hispana (A). Abridged. Kennedy School of Government. Boston, MA