Nonprofits Need to Invest in Collaboration

In another installment of this series on investments nonprofit agencies need to make,  I would like to suggest that nonprofits need to invest strategically in collaboration. Over the years, collaboration recurs as a topic of discussion in my blog, as it is an important competency and practice area for successful nonprofits. The importance of collaboration surfaced again this week as I started digging into narrative summary from the data of  the  2016 Northwest Nonprofit Capacity Report (see footnote).

In one section of the report, the author’s presented a “portrait of deficits” related to nonprofit collaboration. They suggest that nonprofits 1) don’t have the time, money or staff, to collaborate  2) have negative attitudes about collaboration, 3) find it difficult to talk to other nonprofits, and 4) have conflicts with other nonprofits over mission and culture.  The authors of the report suggest that “perhaps” these truths are universal to the sector.

As I consider the nonprofit leaders that I have had the privilege of working with, I would suggest an alternative analysis of “perhaps not.”  While I doubt that I would give nonprofit collaboration the highest marks possible, as a whole, the nonprofit leaders I know rise above the mediocrity that the capacity survey authors suggest is “universal.”  Let’s stop promoting the mythology of mediocre nonprofits.  Rather than haranguing on nonprofit deficits, I would like to suggest four investments related to collaboration that nonprofits can make in order to build even more effective at collaboration.

1. Invest in understanding models of collaboration: While the nonprofit consulting industry creates new buzzwords to describe collaboration like “networks” and “collective impact,” these are but incremental improvements on academic and practice based literature related to collaboration and  coalition-building. Coming up through the ranks of community public health, collaboration and coalition-building was a core competency taught to practitioners. Among the leaders in academic research in the subject was (and is) Tom Wolff, PhD. In a recent critque of collective impact, he argues that in the current trend of collaborating around collective impact, those promoting the concept need to rediscover some of the core principles of collaboration established decades ago. Understanding collaboration prevents us to hitting challenges and roadblocks when trying to work together. Note: Dr. Wolff’s article has a great bibliography as a starting place for such a learning journey.

2. Invest in a collaboration strategy: I believe that nonprofits need to invest in their own collaboration strategy.  The “why” behind the collaboration is more important than the “act” of collaboration.  Unfortunately there are times when collaboration occurs like a shotgun wedding forced by foundations that are eager to create “synergy,” or “leverage,” or some other consultant speak.  However, before saying “I do,” under duress, as a nonprofit leader you need to have a clear “why.” Collaboration only makes sense when it is aligned with a your organizational strategy and is based on your terms, not someone else’s terms.

3. Invest in your systemic influence:  A core principle of effective collaboration is that it is system’s based.  So your strategy needs to be connected to the system in which you operate (see here).  Whether your nonprofit serves youth at risk, elderly adults, or cats and dogs, there is a social ecology in which you operate.  Bringing your influence to that system needs to be proactive and intentional.  Whether you are a leader, peer, or follower, you can (and should) participate in, and influence, the system in which you operate. If you are not influencing the system then you run the risk of being marginalized by the system.

4. Invest in managing collaboration: If collaboration is not hardwired to your strategic plan, the performance dashboard of your board of directors, or embedded in the job description of one more staff members, then it is simply talk.  To be effective, collaboration needs to be managed as part of your overall organizational strategy.  You have to manage collaboration so you know when its working and when it is not. Monitoring performance allows you to make adjustments along the way.  It is only by managing collaboration that you know if (or when) you need to change strategies, stop altogether, or try something new.

As with all of the articles in this series, the goal is not to be prescriptive or dogmatic. The goal is to overview foundations of a strong nonprofit organization with the purpose of guiding your investments of time, money and talent.  In addition to delivering high quality programs and services, nonprofits that are a cut above, invest in R&D, their workforce, their board, their management systems.  As I have worked with successful nonprofits, collaboration based on strategy is another investment that nonprofits need to make. 

As always, your thoughts are welcome!

~Mark

Footnote: There is only a partial description of the survey population or methodology in the materials presented online.  As a result, we have to conclude that the report data is self-reported and based on a convenience sample that may or (more likely) may not be representative of nonprofits. For example, there are an estimated 10,420 active charities in Oregon and the total of 118 respondents from Oregon barely represents .1% of nonprofits.

photo credit Startup Stock Photos

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.