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Collaborating From Strength

December 18, 2008

(Lois Savage is president of the Phoenix-based Lodestar Foundation. This is her first post for PhilanTopic.)

Collab_prize_logo_2In this tough economic environment, calls for nonprofits to adopt business strategies in order to become more efficient and maximize the impact of their work abound. Usually included in the list of such strategies are the dreaded "c" and "m" words -- collaboration and merger. The implication is that employing either of these strategies is a sign of weakness, a last-ditch attempt to avoid organizational extinction. In reality, collaboration and merger strategies often are employed by nonprofits when they are healthy, with powerful synergistic results: the collaborative entity is more effective and impactful than the individual nonprofits, acting alone, ever were capable of being.

Still, collaboration can be daunting for many organizations, which is why they avoid it. Frequently cited as barriers to collaboration are the sheer time and resources it takes to collaborate; difficulties in integrating staff, programs, and different organizational cultures; loss of funding from long-standing donors; and ego and turf considerations.

These challenges are real, but the benefits of collaboration can be exceptional. For example, the Global Forum for Media Development, a global conference of world-wide independent media NGOs, has led to organized coordination and cooperation within the industry, enabling significantly more efficient utilization of resources and effective results within the field. Similarly, the Arizona's Children Association's acquisition of two existing nonprofits resulted in a dramatic reduction in operating costs for the first acquired nonprofit, Golden Gate Community Center, while the second acquisition enabled the New Directions Institute for Brain Development to increase its training capacity by 100 percent in a single year.

Since our inception almost ten years ago, the Lodestar Foundation has focused on helping nonprofit organizations collaborate to leverage the growth and effectiveness of philanthropy. While there is a wealth of information about collaboration in the business world, including case studies, models and how-to books, there is very little information about the unique realities of nonprofit collaboration. With the goal of providing such information to the sector, Lodestar earlier this year initiated the Collaboration Prize, a $250,000 award to the best U.S. nonprofit collaboration (including joint programming, administrative consolidations and mergers) between otherwise competitive organizations. We thought that if we received a hundred nominations, we could consider the project a success -- and were amazed when we received 644 nominations, all of them formulated during relatively prosperous economic times.

We are now in the process of organizing and analyzing this treasure trove of information. One thing is clear, however: While some of the nominated collaborations were formed as a result of adverse conditions (such as loss of an executive director or loss of funding) or pursuant to funder mandates, many involve marriages between strong viable organizations focused on maximizing effectiveness through joint action. This latter group demonstrates that collaboration can be a thoughtful, positive strategy for fulfilling an organizational mission, not just a desperation-induced tactical decision. All the nominees provided quantitative evidence of efficiencies and impact achieved through the vehicle of collaboration.

Collaboration will continue to be promoted as an option to nonprofits as a way to reduce costs and survive. Learnings from the Collaboration Prize, which we will begin to roll out in the first quarter of 2009, can be used to advance the concept of collaboration as a positive tool. In addition to providing models for initiating and managing collaborations, data from the nominees address a broad range of collaboration-related issues of import to funders and to nonprofits, issues ranging from how funders can create an environment that encourages nonprofits to explore collaboration, to how nonprofits can overcome common challenges that inhibit collaboration. Armed with practical knowledge about successful collaborations, perhaps more nonprofits will consider this powerful strategy. Stay tuned.

-- Lois Savage

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Posted by Scott  |   December 19, 2008 at 09:25 AM

Very interesting blog.

I like the fact that you made this a positive article about a management technique that is always available to NPO's.

I think most NPO's should consider at least the impact they would have on their community if they collaborated with a competing organization. It could very well help their cause and their population that they serve.

I do think that NPO's like their for- profit counterpart tend to let their ego's get in the way. They see their organization as the solution not their cross town rival.

An open mind and true visionary is needed or an outsider who is versed in this area of expertise. They could guide them through the process of anyalzing their particular situation to see if the feasibility exist.

Thanks for the topic it was extremely informative.

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