What role does collaboration play in nonprofit management? How can resources be leveraged?

In the face of a changing economy, dwindling budgets and stretched-thin staff, nonprofit leaders are beginning to recognize they can’t afford not to collaborate. As a result, organizations are seeking out opportunities to work together in new ways- to leverage resources, share strengths, increase efficiencies, reduce overlap and develop scaled-up organizational model- to tackle our most complex social issues. In fact, collaboration can even be appealing to funders because it increases the likelihood that they’ll see a greater impact for their investment.

What does it mean to collaborate? Simply put, a collaboration is a mutually beneficial relationship with a purpose of meeting common goals. Jean Lipman-Blumen, author of Connective Leadership: Managing in a Changing World, calls collaborative leaders “connective” and writes, “they ethically and altruistically use the self and others as instruments for accomplishing goals.”

Collaboration and partnerships come in many forms. Information sharing, shared grant writing, shared office space and administrative activities, joint programming ventures, organizations that advocate together, and even mergers of two or more organizations are all examples. In every form, nonprofit collaborations result in efficient uses of resources and significant cost savings for the organizations involved. The right partnerships can also bring “like-minds” together to solve larger, more complex social issues.

How to make collaborations work? Collaborations have lifecycles. In the early stages, structure is typically kept to a minimum. As the value of the collaboration increases and membership grows, more attention needs to be paid to the details. Here are some key steps to help you make your collaborations a success:

  1. Know your organization, your constituency and your goals. The more able you are to articulate your mission, values, purpose and goals, the more likely you are to create collaborations that work.
  2. Define the collaboration clearly and tie it to goals and objectives. Ensure each participant’s purpose is understood. Define roles and responsibilities and hold individuals accountable. Build relationships based on trust and open communication.
  3. Get buy-in. Involve key stakeholders and get support from those who can help move the collaboration forward and create impact.
  4. Create a plan of action and follow it. Create measurable goals and evaluate outcomes as you go. Evaluation will help you determine whether to continue the collaboration and in what capacity.

Types of nonprofit alliances

Cooperation Informal arrangements and relationships with no change in organizational structure of participating entities.
Coordination More formal arrangements and relationships that focus on specific programs or projects and are accompanied by plans and a shared mission.
Collaboration Longer-term, formal arrangements and relationships where separate organizations are brought into a new structure with a shared mission.
Merger Arrangement in which two organizations become one.

Source: The Fieldstone Nonprofit Guide to Forming Alliances uses the above categories, based on the work of Michael Winer and Karen Ray (Collaboration Handbook) and David LaPiana (The Nonprofit Mergers Workbook).

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