September 19, 2017

Alone We Can Do So Little; Together We Can Do So Much

As funders at the national, state, and local levels require a deeper level of regular collaboration from nonprofits, it is important to consider the motivating factors behind collaboration and what makes some collaborations successful and competitive. A way to begin building strong partnerships is to assess collaborations from every angle to determine what is right for your organization. Collaborations have a long history in the United States, including state versus federal jurisdiction, the growth and expansion of social services, and nonprofit development as a solution to market failure.

Collaboration in the Modern Era

It was not until the late 1960s that the U.S. federal government began acknowledging the role that funders and programs outside of state and federal government could play in addressing community needs. Many of these groups had been active for decades, but had not been recognized nationally as contributors to government or social efforts. As they became better known and collaborated with governments at the state level, the federal government ramped up its partnerships with nonprofits to include increased grantmaking and contracts. Services, including job training, physical and mental health, disability, child and family welfare, and substance abuse, were now being provided through government partnerships and agreements with nonprofit organizations.

In the early years of the 21st century, relationships between federal government, state government, and foundations have become even more prominent. Our current era of collaboration is characterized by strong connections between organizations and accessible networks, including social media, information exchange, in-person interactions, and more, which allows funders and nonprofit organizations to “enhance one another’s capabilities, to smooth services interactions, and to solve policy/program problems.”[1] Significantly, this increased connection is characterized by an ever-growing emphasis on inter-agency collaboration.


Nonprofits as a Response to Market Failure

Nonprofit organizations make the decision to collaborate with each other and with government agencies for several reasons, including service overlap, community needs, and, of course, funding opportunities. Ultimately, nonprofits are flexible enough to step in and provide services in response to specific market failures, including providing goods or services that are not lucrative for for-profit channels. Further, nonprofits are frequently quicker than the government to respond to changing needs in the community.

An unintended consequence of this move toward collaboration is a belief on the part of funders that collaborations always yield a deeper impact for fewer dollars, which has led to many funders requiring collaboration as a precondition of grantmaking. However, this requirement can be limiting, as collaborations are complicated and involve a blending of missions, objectives, and services, and funders often require rigorous reporting. So, when is collaboration necessary, rewarding, and worth the risk for your organization? With the growing number of grantmakers expecting collaboration as a prerequisite to funding, is important to consider the costs of collaboration, whether those costs outweigh potential benefits, and whether collaboration will honor your agency’s mission and vision.


The Pros and Cons of Collaboration

Today, avoiding collaboration is not an option. Collaboration is a deeply intertwined piece of U.S. governance, nonprofit operations, and the delivery of many goods and services. So how do you make it work in a way that makes sense for your organization?

There are pros and cons to collaboration, some of which may not be obvious, so it is important to determine whether the potential for positive outcomes outweighs the potential for frustration. Cons include possible loss of territory, increased time commitment due to inclusion of additional actors, difficulties in trying to reach consensus, power imbalances between partners, potential for resource hoarding,[2] difficult personalities, hidden agendas, failure to commit, failure to share information,[3] and difficulty evaluating results.[4] Recognizing potential costs, especially those specific to your organization and partnerships, is vital before embarking into collaborative territory. Once you have addressed them, you can effectively map out a collaboration that avoids or tackles costs while working toward benefits.

The benefits of collaborating can be many, and include “economic efficiencies, a more effective response to shared problems, improvements in the quality of services delivered to clients, the spreading of risks, and increased access to resources.”[5] One important benefit that pertains specifically to Albuquerque and New Mexico comes with having a diverse population—addressing the many needs that come with diversity can be a challenge, but is also a tremendous opportunity for collaboration. A greater and more diverse need gives organizations more opportunities to collaborate, solve pressing problems in the community, and serve a larger population.


How to Make Collaborations Work for Your Organization

According to Russell M. Linden, a management consultant specializing in organizational change, there are seven key collaborative factors that will take your organization down the right path. Collaborating organizations must:

  1. Have a shared vision that neither can achieve as well on their own;
  2. Want to collaborate and be willing and ready to contribute to the collaboration;
  3. Make sure the “right people” are involved in making the collaboration happen (i.e. those with the power and expertise to make the vision a reality);
  4. Be transparent and reliable;
  5. Maintain at least one “champion” for the cause who will see it through to the end;
  6. Utilize “collaborative leadership” rather than drawing power lines between organizations; and
  7. Maintain and nurture a trusting relationship.[6]

Remarkably, successful collaborations can often highlight the individual talents of your team. Humans have an inherent desire to connect with something bigger, “and, when that ‘something larger’ is a collaborative team, team members can meet both the ‘me’ and ‘we’ needs as they contribute their special talents and unique knowledge and experience to a successful group project.”[7]

Collaborations can be successful and rewarding, as long as they honor the missions and visions of all parties involved; you assess costs and benefits; build a strong, sustainable, and truly cooperative program; and seek funding that is well-aligned with your goals and objectives. By combining these strategies with an understanding of the potential pitfalls of collaboration, your organization will not be doomed to repeat past failures!

[1] Agranoff, Robert. Collaborating to Manage: A Primer for the Public Sector. Georgetown University Press, 2012, p. 29.

[2] Agranoff, Robert. Collaborating to Manage: A Primer for the Public Sector. Georgetown University Press, 2012, p. 156.

[3] Russell M. Linden. Leading Across Boundaries: Creating Collaborative Agencies in a Networked World. Jossey-Bass, 2010, p. 59.

[4] Feiock, Richard C. and Hee Soun Jang. “Public Versus Private Funding of Nonprofit Organizations: Implications for Collaboration.” Public Performance & Management Review, vol. 31, no. 2, 2007, p. 178.

[5] Id.

[6] Russell M. Linden. Leading Across Boundaries: Creating Collaborative Agencies in a Networked World. Jossey-Bass, 2010, p. 38.

[7] Id., p. 23.

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