The fun for me in collaboration is, one, working with other people just makes you smarter; that’s proven. Lin-Manuel Miranda
Do you ever feel a little isolated and alone as a small nonprofit in a vast sea of bigger fish? Or are you struggling with your limited time and resources to boost your nonprofit but have run low on ideas or inspiration? For many nonprofits, building collaborations with other similar organizations can be a mutually productive way to achieve greater impact than by working on their own.
One research study showed that 91 percent of nonprofits engage in some form of collaborative relationship for a variety of reasons. That seems rather high, but it might depend on the type of collaborations that have been formed. In fact, three main reasons to engage in a collaborative relationship include (1) to boost organizational efficiency, (2) to increase organizational effectiveness, or (3) to drive broader social and systems change (Simonin, Samali, Zohdy, Laidler-Kylander, 2016).
A collaboration can result in shared services, joint programming, collective events, problem solving correlated issues, and exposure to fresh perspectives along with innovative solutions. Some might even result in a complete merger of organizations. In an increasingly challenging atmosphere for nonprofits, cultivating collaborations can be a smart idea.
Here are five ways to start thinking about forming a collaboration with other nonprofit organizations to strengthen capacity and the potential for a more sustainable future.
1.Understand What You Want from the Collaboration
An organization should determine what they want from the collaborative relationship before getting started. Identify clear goals organization goals for the new relationship. What needs could a relationship with another organization assist? What strategic benefits could become a reality through an alliance with one or more partners? Would the relationship be ongoing or for a particular length of time? Start with an internal analysis of your organization to determine how a collaborative relationship would be beneficial. This also helps you determine the partners that would be the best for you to approach when you’re ready.
2. Get Your Ducks in a Row
What will your organization bring to the table in a collaboration? Are you strong and clear on your mission? Is your board working harmoniously and providing good governance? Are operations in order or are there programs or services that need to be revised or even eliminated? Do you understand your financial position and potential? These are just some of the questions to ask prior to going into a collaboration. You don’t have to be perfect before exploring collaborations but you need to know what you bring to the table to work from a position of strength.
3. Start Small to Test the Waters
Instead of jumping into a collaboration with two feet, an option is to start small with a short-term relationship to test the waters. For instance, can you work together on an event? Can you share a resource to build capacity in a particular area of operations? Starting with a small project or event gives you time to assess the potential partnership. See if you work well together. Do your missions actually mesh well? Can your people get along with each other without conflict? You’ll have a better sense if an actual collaboration will be beneficial or not. The collaboration can grow into something more extensive based on the outcomes of an initial short encounter.
4. Understand Your Why
Collaborations are a means to an end—not an end in itself. In other words, be clear on why you’re forming a collaboration. Are you finding a way to increase your resources? Will this allow a more powerful impact on a particular social problem? Will both organizations be more effective than working alone? Being clear on your “why” let’s you form the appropriate type of partnership with others. You get away from a cookie-cutter idea of how the collaboration should look and design what brings you to your goal.
5. Start Looking for the Right Partner
Who in your environment might make a good partner and why? That’s one of the big questions to start asking as you ponder collaborations. Get both leadership and board involved in looking around to see how you and other organizations might complement, enhance, or correctly diversify each other. Consider the core competencies of your organization and those of an organization you’d like to consider as a partner. Core competencies are what you do best, and often better than anyone else. How does this connect with a social need in the community being served by a compatible organization? Would working together help move the social change you envision forward? If so, you might have identified a potential partner to start your collaborative efforts.
Building collaborations doesn’t happen overnight . . . but if you don’t get started thinking about and planning them, they won’t happen at all. Use these 5 tips to help you start thinking about how to start the collaborative process.
Simonin, Samali, Zohdy, Laidler-Kylander. (2016) Why and How Do Nonprofits Work Together? https://philanthropynewsdigest.org/columns/the-sustainable-nonprofit/why-and-how-do-nonprofits-work-together
Taylor (2017) Hacking Nonprofit collaboration. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/hacking_nonprofit_collaboration