Collaborating to increase impact

The fragmented structure of the not-for-profit sector makes it very hard to aggregate capital or talent and develop scale for greater impact. There’s also a lot of reinventing of the wheel. While, in theory at least, the overall effectiveness of the sector could be improved by a fair amount of consolidation, mergers of not-for-profits are very hard to bring about. Egos and turf issues can get in the way, and sometimes it seems the smaller the organization, the bigger the battle.

Still, if we are to significantly alleviate some of our country’s most pressing social problems, we need to make more effective use of existing resources – in part, by combining and leveraging some of those resources in different ways. Much of this can fall under the general heading of “collaboration.”

Over the last 20 years we have been involved in collaborative relationships with many different organizations. Some of those collaborations have caused some good things to happen that otherwise probably would not have happened. In some cases, though, the collaborations were effective only at wasting time.
Our most successful collaborations with other organizations have been those in which:

  • We and our partner have a common goal – with specific, measurable objectives – around which the collaboration is built.
  • We have compatible values.
  • We have complementary resources.
  • We trust each other (Without this, the collaboration will almost always fail)

Additionally, in an effective collaboration:

  • Each party must bring something of value to the table, and each must benefit from the collaboration.
  • The mutual trust and respect among the parties must go deeper in the organization than just board to board or CEO to CEO. Effective working relationships and trust at multiple levels are essential. We have never had any success where the CEO of a collaboration partner was in favor, but key people at lower levels were not.
  • All parties must conclude that they can accomplish more toward a specific objective by working together than by going it alone.
  • Each party must resist the temptation to seek recognition or credit for itself, but be willing to give credit to the other parties or to the collaboration as a whole.
  • All parties must realize that there will be compromises in the process and that change in the program or service over time is inevitable.
  • Roles must be carefully defined and put in writing.
  • Issues and disagreements must be confronted directly and immediately.

Great care must be taken in selecting collaboration partners – especially when the organizations are very different in size and may have different ideas about the importance of the collaboration. We have also been involved in a few situations in which we were simultaneously competitors and collaborators with another organization. If this were easy, I suppose we would have done a lot more of them.

It’s also important to keep in mind that a successful collaboration can be undone as a result of a change in one key person. In reality, we don’t have relationships with other organizations; we have relationships with individuals in those organizations. When key players change, we must develop relationships with the new players.

Despite the difficulties, developing focused collaborations can be well worth the effort and go a long way toward making better use of our collective resources and increasing our combined positive impact.
Collaborating to increase impact