August 04, 2016
Collaboration in the social sector takes many different forms and can be approached in a variety of ways, but before nonprofits address the what and how of organizational partnerships, they should consider the most important question of all: Why?
Everybody loves collaboration — in theory. I mean, who doesn't believe that two or more nonprofits working together to achieve common goals is a good thing? To not think that would be churlish, right? But put aside the feel-good factor for a moment and let's be honest: collaboration is not a good in itself unless it serves a definite purpose.
Nor is collaboration always the answer. A nonprofit has any number of strategies to choose from to advance its mission, and partnering with others is just one of them. But when considering which strategies to pursue, it can be helpful to think about certain kinds of partnerships as lending themselves to certain types of goals.
Although I've already used the term "collaboration" in a broad sense to refer to organizations that agree to work toward a common goal or purpose, it can also refer more specifically to the most common types of partnership, which tend to be limited in duration and degree of organizational integration. Some of the goals that can be advanced through collaboration include:
- Pooling expertise or resources in co-sponsored or shared support of a time-limited effort.
- Amplifying a policy message around a shared cause or issue through joint advocacy.
- Creating and sharing collective wisdom and knowledge through collaborative learning.
- Leveraging networks of like-minded organizations to tackle social issues requiring sustained, coordinated action.
Alliances tend to be more formal and longer term than collaborations (though they need not be permanent), while still allowing a significant level of organizational autonomy. This type of partnership can be useful for advancing goals such as:
- Developing a more robust level of organizational efficiency through the consolidation of administrative services.
- Taking advantage of the financial and infrastructural benefits of a 501(c)(3) using a fiscal sponsorship arrangement, leaving one's organization free to focus on program delivery.
- Generating revenue by providing administrative services or fiscal sponsorship to a partner whose mission is aligned with yours.
- Providing services or programs more effectively and/or to a broader audience or geographic area through joint programming.
- Sharing the benefits (and risks) of a revenue-generating social venture through a joint earned income venture.
- Networking and sharing learning with groups and/or individuals with common interests through the formation of an affinity group.
- Leveraging advocacy, purchasing power, standards setting and enforcement, or other activities through the creation of coalitions, consortia, or associations.
The third category of partnerships is the most permanent and tightly integrated, involving as it does structural changes to the partnering entities. These types of partnerships can serve the following types of goals:
- Combining specific skills and expertise via a joint venture corporation.
- Consolidating administrative and program areas while maintaining separate corporate entities through a parent-subsidiary structure.
- Enhancing service offerings, expanding reach, and/or eliminating the redundancy of administrative or programmatic activities through a merger or acquisition.
Collaborative strategies can yield a range of benefits, but they also take a great deal of work. Knowing why you want to pursue a partnership is critical not only in terms of guiding you to the right what and how, but also for ensuring that the effort is worth everyone's while.
At the end of the day, your mission must guide any decision you make about entering into a collaboration or more formal partnership. And within that context, you must weigh whether collaboration is the right strategy to pursue. But first, take the time to get very clear on what it is you hope to achieve. Then, and only then, will you be prepared to work out the kind arrangement that can help get you there.
Melissa Mendes Campos is senior research manager at La Piana Consulting, a nonprofit consulting firm that works to improve leadership and management practices throughout the social sector.