Every industry has their own ins and outs and the nonprofit sector is no different. In the for-profit world, working with other organizations may be called by different names and occur with different frequencies but in the nonprofit world, partnerships with other organizations are commonly referred to as collaborations. Rather than viewing each other as competitors, nonprofit organizations often see similar or complementary organizations as potential allies. Not only is collaboration desirable, it is extremely common and encompasses a broad range of relationships.
Arboreta Group loves helping nonprofits work together in leveraging their resources to expand their reach and improve their economies of scale. Your collaborative projects can take any shape that is mutually beneficial for both your organization and your partner(s): from a simple referral process for shared clients, to jointly creating new programs to provide complementary services to the same population; or even discussing how to re-shape programs that provide overlapping services so you may reduce redundancy. Regardless of the project, many nonprofits recognize the benefits of collaborations and work with their partners to develop mutually beneficial relationships. But how do you go about starting a collaborative relationship with another nonprofit? We suggest approaching this business relationship in a similar way as a romantic relationship by following the steps below.
- Consider your list of desirable qualities and “deal breakers” as you think about potential partners. You likely have a list of qualities and values you deem critical to making for a good fit with another organization, qualities such as a compatible philosophy for their work with clients, a certain type or set of services, a particular service area or population, or “deal breakers” such as a poor reputation in the community or a mismatch with your organizational values. Taking the time to discuss, identify, and prioritize qualities with key members of your staff and writing them down before you actually begin searching for potential partners is critical to preventing you from getting in relationships that become detrimental to your organization or end poorly.
- Do your due diligence, research your potential mates. Check out the social media pages, reviews, and Google search results of organizations you are considering collaborating with so you begin to get a sense of who they are. Talk to front-line staff and community members about their experiences with that organization. If representatives from potential partners happen to be at an upcoming event, attend so you can see them interact with others and introduce yourself in a casual, low-stress environment.
- Get out there and make a connection. Make a call or send an email to set up a meeting for a preliminary conversation about working together. Establish the reason for your desire to work with them as being one of mutual benefit; demonstrate both your understanding of who they are as well your desire to get to know them and their needs. Be persistent, people are busy. At the same time do not ignore the signals they might be sending you if they fail to respond or seem to be very reluctant to connect with you.
- “Date” before you commit. Most people would not recommend moving in with someone after one date, we do not recommend committing to an expensive, multi-year project after only one meeting with a potential collaborator. Yes, for some government grants you are required to get MOUs from collaborative partners, which may shorten the “courtship” time, but even in those cases you have some control over the extent of the collaboration. When the relationship is not defined by funders, we suggest trying one or two short-term projects with your new partners, with project specific MOUs in place, before launching into that joint application for a $3 million multi-year federal grant.
- Make time for a reality check. It is easy to have weeks and months go by in a relationship that is not utterly falling apart but things are not great, especially if you are not really stopping to ask yourself or your team whether the relationship is really meeting your expectations. Rather than just continuing with your collaboration mindlessly, take the time to check-in with staff in your own organizations and then with your partner about the challenges, successes, and concerns with the relationship. If the concerns can be addressed with a plan for program improvements, great! If those concerns cannot be addressed or one party is not interested in putting in the work to address them, then figure out a way to respectfully cut your loses and move on.
Though there are many different ways to work with another organization and the start of your relationship can vary, we urge you to find some way to integrate these steps into your collaborations. Whether you follow these steps in this exact order, add others, or begin to go through some of them with an already established partner, the important thing to remember is to be mindful as you enter or continue with a collaborative relationship.
What are your thoughts on collaborations? Are there any successes you would like to share? Lessons learned from those that did not go as you hoped? Share your stories with us. Contact us here.