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Conscious Collaboration: The New Competitive Advantage for Nonprofits

May 18, 2017

CollaborationWhole Kids Foundation is a nonprofit on a mission to support schools and inspire families to improve their children's nutrition and wellness. We were established by Whole Foods Market in 2011 and operate in the U.S., UK and Canada, supporting more than ten thousand schools and reaching over five million kids. Our staff of six full-time team members is responsible for raising and investing $5 million annually. With such a small team, collaboration plays a critical role in our success.

It's unrealistic to believe that any one organization can solve today’s major societal issues alone, and so from the outset we have viewed the work of improving nutrition for children as a kind of relay. As such, it's imperative that we focus on our leg of the race — the work we are uniquely qualified and equipped to do. To achieve maximum impact, however, it's also critical for us to get to know and build relationships with organizations that are running other legs of the race. And as a leader in our field, it's important that we help other funders think about the quality of collaborations as an indicator of effectiveness.

From our roots in "conscious capitalism," a term coined by Whole Foods Market founder John Mackey to express the generative spirit of business and its capacity to create positive change in the world, we have developed an approach I call "conscious collaboration,” which is based on the idea that the tenets of conscious capitalism are as effective and powerful when implemented by nonprofit organizations.

Conscious collaborations begin with honest conversations, and the most difficult part of such conversations often is having an open dialogue about goals. Every dialogue we have with a potential collaborator begins with a simple question: "Can you help us understand your goals — both for your organization and related to anything we might do together?" If the question is not reciprocated, or if active listening is missing from the conversation when we share our goals, it's usually a good indicator that the organization is not a good partner for us.

Once your goals have been shared, the next step is to decide whether there is alignment between those goals. If there isn't, you have to to be willing to unapologetically admit as much. Don't worry. Even if there is no alignment, there's still value in having gotten to know each other. I cannot count the number of occasions where I’ve contacted a potential partner years after we first met. In 2009, for example, before Whole Kids existed, I met Curt Ellis, who had recently produced the documentary King Corn. In our meeting, he shared an idea he had for an organization centered on school gardens. I didn't see any immediate connection to the work we were doing, but we agreed to keep in touch. In 2012, when the Whole Kids Foundation wanted to establish a school garden grant program, I called Curt. He was in the process of co-founding FoodCorps, a national service organization that today connects kids to healthy food in school so they can lead healthier lives and reach their full potential.

Because Curt and I had met and were comfortable with each other, we were able to quickly reach agreement on a set of goals and outline a program of mutual benefit to our organizations. Our relationship has evolved over the years since, as our respective organizations have matured and their goals have evolved. Today, the FoodCorps program is in its fifth year and, with the help of our support, has established nearly five thousand school gardens. FoodCorps fellows also act as third-party grant reviewers for us, and thanks to their feedback, we have updated our application form to reflect what we've learned.

Thanks in part to our partnership with FoodCorps, we've learned a lot about the key ingredients of a successful collaboration. And for Whole Kids, it all starts with asking (and answering) the following questions:

1. Do you have a basic understanding of the other organization's big-picture goals? It's important to invest resources in developing such an understanding — both in terms of goal alignment and the areas where you differ (or are indifferent).

2. Are you willing to commit to face time at least once a year? Where is your potential partner located? It's important to think about this — and other potential obstacles to a successful partnership — at the outset. Accessibility is a key factor in creating a productive, long-lasting relationship.

3. Do you respect the person with whom you are dealing and the work done by his/her organization? This is where your proverbial gut instinct comes into play. Are you aligned philosophically — and temperamentally — with your potential partner(s)? Are your work styles and cultures complementary or contrasting? If the latter is the case, will that be a problem — for either organization?

4. Think about potential conflicts. How will you feel about openly disagreeing with your potential partner? How will you feel when they push back? It's imperative that you have this conversation with them before any agreement is signed.

5. Examine your respective decision-making processes. Many frustrations can be avoided if you take the time to learn how your partner and his/her organization arrive at decisions, and vice versa.

If, after answering these questions, you determine that there is real synergy and alignment between your organizations, the next step is to identify a modest joint initiative that allows you to test out the relationship. Be sure to choose an effort that fits comfortably within your existing resources, both human and financial.

An ability to collaborate can be one of an organization's greatest assets. But keep in mind that experimentation is an intrinsic part of working with others, and that lessons learned often are more important than actual outcomes. And remember: all collaborations are an investment, so be sure to invest with your eyes wide open!

Headshot_nona_evansNona Evans has led the Whole Kids Foundation since its inception in 2011. Her career at Whole Foods Market has spanned seventeen years and includes leadership roles in regional marketing, store design, private label brand development, and global marketing.

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