Doing Good Together: From Competition to Collaboration

Nonprofit Finance Fund’s 2018 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey reported a whopping 68% of nonprofits are in formal collaboration with other organizations.  This makes sense (and usually, cents) in a climate where the problems nonprofits are tackling are myriad and complex, and the funding landscape highly competitive.  Nonprofits are often ‘stronger together’ when they can join forces and short circuit the sometimes-vicious cycle of inter-agency competition for funding dollars.

The issues we aim to solve are interdependent, and more and more organizations want to take an intersectional approach to ensure the long term success of their communities.  If your mission is childcare, you can’t help but feel the pressures of the housing crisis, economic disparities, and food insecurity. When we collaborate effectively, we can offer better, more comprehensive support to the communities we serve.  

Lean in to Leverage

Organizations with different approaches or with overlapping target populations can benefit from formalizing and streamlining access to complementary services.  When I worked in the family homeless services field in San Francisco this was not only a smart way to meet our clients’ complex needs, but also became a requirement for some of our largest funders.  It was vital we worked in new ways with other organizations that supported this community. The systems were strained almost to breaking—the wait for family shelter was topping out at 6+ months on average for a 3-6 month shelter stay.  Organizations who’d previously found themselves as competitors were compelled to reach out to one another and think creatively about meeting needs in a new way. This was a fundamental culture shift, and not an easy one, but one that was critical.

Every funding cycle, we’d find ourselves enmeshed in the process of updating “leverage letters”, and while this was a sizeable administrative chore, it did highlight the value of our partnerships in a large-scale way.  We’d become accustomed to the case-by-case impact we’d see when families were able to take our referrals to another org for job readiness training, legal services, or clothing for their kids, but seeing the millions of dollars saved and the hundreds of children supported helped us realize the magnitude of collaborative impact. The exchanges with colleagues at partner orgs usually helped reinforce existing partnerships, and raise up areas for new outreach as we took stock on our “portfolio” of official partnerships.

Pitfalls? The challenge of formalizing partnerships in ways that are sustainable is a major challenge—too many die out with staff turnover.  The work required to keep a process alive is probably only topped by the challenges of formalizing processes AT ALL. Oftentimes when immersed in the day to day juggling of client needs, in this case urgent needs for shelter, medical and mental health care… it was hard if not impossible to take time out of the day to design, implement, and coordinate formalized referral processes.

If you are lucky you might have one staff on your team who is a fan of systems, likes creating forms, will help keep your files/resources somewhat organized and accessible, will embrace the chance to take a deep dive into coordinating a collaboration and put new systems in place, draft any requisite forms, train the rest of the team and external collaborators in new processes… but that’s a lot to put on anyone’s shoulders, especially when in the nonprofit world they likely also have a maxed out caseload or overflowing admin inbox. And to often, when that one lynchpin team member leaves, it can feel like starting from scratch.  While it seemed obvious this wasn’t sustainable, there was often not enough time, energy or resources to step back and take a more intentional approach.

Systems and processes don’t create themselves, and having someone who can bring fresh insight to coordinating services and implementing systems of collaboration can be invaluable—it’s the kind of thing we love to do here at Good Works. When systems are sustainable and fully integrated into the day to day process, you can ‘lean in to leverage’ and find new ways to work collaboratively with larger networks to the benefit of individual clients and your organizations’ impact.

Joint Contracts: Personality, Punctuality, and Punctuation

Taking it a step further, banding together with organizations with complementary missions, instead of squaring off in grant application processes, can help you aim for larger value contracts and makes bids more competitive.  Over the years at different organizations, I’ve managed both collaborative grant applications and complicated multi-organization reporting and have seen the challenges and benefits first hand. This kind of collaboration yields high dividends but definitely entails a higher degree of difficulty.

Along with the very real benefits of allyship there often also comes a troika of personality, punctuality and punctuation pitfalls. Gather a few professionals to work on a project and there is usually at least one who will wait until the last minute (or later) to get their piece done, or one who feels strongly about a different view of punctuation (comma minimalists vs. Oxford comma enthusiasts, anyone?) Really, is there anything more frustrating than receiving two differently-edited versions of the same thing from two different team members at the eleventh hour, forcing you to comb through and do a last minute multi-version mind meld?!

And then of course, you can deal with plain and simple personalities colliding. When stakes are high for your program and your clients, emotions can naturally tend to run high as well, and it’s vital to be able to bring a cool head to the table while tending and navigating your partnerships.  We rely heavily on the passion of our teams, and this can be a process where strong emotional pulls can turn into barriers instead of assets. In situations like this, good systems and experienced support can be a critical piece to help keep the peace, and keep all eyes focused on the joint mission at hand.

Doing Good, Together

With complex issues besetting our communities, it’s important to not only work hard, but work smart, and partnerships are often a smart solution to help serve your mission, your people, and your organization’s bottom line. You’re not serving your mission to the fullest if you’re busy looking over your shoulder, competing with fellow nonprofits sharing your vision and values. Partnering up to facilitate access to complementary services, tackle complex problems with multi-pronged approaches, or joining voices together to advocate for change in your community (more on that later!) are forward-thinking strategies nonprofits are turning to more and more.

That said, when organizations link up to tackle shared objectives the dynamics can be tricky. Working in partnership, new challenges beyond the day to day challenges of the mission work arise, and require attention if the partnership is to meet its full potential. With conscious tending of partnerships, and support to design and implement sustainable systems, organizations can break out of scarcity mentality that too-often pits like-minded nonprofits against each other so we can do good, better, together.

Susanna Rodriguez

5.16.19

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