Q&A on Successful Nonprofit Collaboration

Social TrendSpotter
5 min readJan 25, 2024

I just had lunch with a dear friend who asked me a question I often hear as a teacher, consultant and community advocate: “Why is collaboration so hard?” I laughed a little and then explained it was the same reason why personal relationships are difficult. People go into them blindly, albeit with the best of intentions, and just expect things to “work.” However, science shows us that a more strategic approach can help. Just as there are people who are better at relationships than others, there are also those who are better at making collaborations work than most. They know how to win trust, set boundaries, communicate effectively and discuss issues upfront before conflict arises. And, in trainings when I frame collaborations as “relationships,” it helps individuals understand that a successful collaboration is built over time. And, just like relationships, collaborations have proven best practices that make coming together and achieving real results easier.

In a webinar we did for the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky called “Collaboration as THE Key to Success,” participants from across the country learned about our step-by-step process for collaboration. It covered important topics on:

WHY:

  • Why collaboration is a unique 21st-century trend for the social sector
  • Why collaboration works and leads to system change

WHAT:

  • Why all collaboration is not equal (e.g., coalitions, collective impact) and how to categorize your existing collaborations
  • How and when to pursue a collaboration and when to let one go

HOW:

  • How to make collaborations work, including how to best structure meetings, build trust using charters and ground rules, and communicate effectively
  • How to measure your existing collaborative efforts
  • How to take your collaborative efforts to the next level through honest conversations on building trust, creating meaningful value for all partners, and managing conflict and power structures

You can experience the content in two ways — check out the webinar’s slides and/or the recording. And for a quick synopsis, we share our answers to common collaboration conundrums below.

When should I collaborate? When should I exit a collaboration?

One of the biggest mistakes social sector organizations make is considering collaboration to be a minor programmatic decision. Instead, collaboration should be part of your organizational strategy that determines where you spend your time and energy.

We love using “The Hedgehog Concept” (see slides 14 and 15) as the litmus test for when to collaborate. First, define your “sweet spot” — what you are uniquely gifted to bring to the community. Then, consider everything outside of that sweet spot to be fertile ground for collaboration. For example, I recently worked for a shelter for runaway children. Through evaluation, we discovered that mental health issues were a major factor in outcomes for their clients. The shelter didn’t provide these services, so the team instantly thought to write a grant to hire a mental health professional. However, they didn’t have experience in mental health, nor did they have an ongoing source of funding for it. Per the hedgehog concept, they were attempting to do something outside of their area of expertise and they did not have an economic engine for the project. Considering these obstacles, I asked them to challenge their instinct to add to their service line and instead consider bringing a mental health agency onsite to serve their clients through a collaboration. A mental health agency would be much better equipped to provide these services due to its wealth of knowledge, multiple modalities and ability to bill Medicaid for services. This collaboration proved to be an effective way for the shelter to address its need to provide mental health services to its clients. It reminds us of how and why organizations need to stay deeply connected to what they do best and collaborate around everything else.

How do I measure our existing efforts?

Collaborations are not about addition; they are about multiplication. If you have people in a room together, the power in that room to create change should have a multiplier effect or you need to rethink the collaboration. First, to measure this, know what kind of collaboration you are (see slide 11). Then, set a baseline through tools, such as the free Wilder Collaboration Factors Inventory (see slide 34 for an example). We like the Wilder because it looks beyond the activities in collaboration and focuses on the research-tested success factors surrounding the behaviors. We strongly believe behavior is the greatest driver of success in collaboration. Finally, measure these collaboration factors every so often to celebrate the successes and fine-tune areas in need of improvement.

Attendance at our collaborative meetings is dwindling. What is your advice?

From our extensive work with teams, boards, coalitions and collaborations, we have observed that individuals join collaborations (and teams) for the mission, but stay because they enjoy the work, feel that they uniquely contribute and love the people. To enjoy the work, people need to feel as if progress is being made. Consider the well-known steps in Change Management. People in a collaboration need to agree on a vision that is compelling, know their role and get a short-term win to stay enthusiastic. Do not underestimate the importance of bonding in a collaboration, either. People won’t miss a meeting if they know they and their contribution will be missed. We often encourage collaborations to have a “Culture Club” or “Cool Committee” to celebrate big-wins, birthdays and holidays to bring people together as a team.

We are doing more internally to collaborate. Tell us how we can work internally for better teamwork and collaboration.

Collaboration between and among organizations is common, but collaboration internally is even more common. The principles behind collaboration equally apply to internal work, such as board retreats, executive committee meetings and all-staff meetings. Think about the following:

  • CONTEXT: Do you spend more time finding a good time for the meeting or ensuring the meeting is a good time? Is the agenda carefully constructed or pulled together at the last minute?
  • CONTENT: Are your meetings about updates (which can be read) or are they a chance to strategize and make decisions?
  • CONNECTION: Are you spending time to build trust, learn about each other and bond over common issues to encourage a teamwork mentality?

Collaboration is just like our most important relationships. It takes time, energy and careful consideration to really be successful. We encourage you to schedule time to upgrade your skills on collaboration through our webinar slides and recording. We promise that you will walk away with new methods, tools and ideas to improve all your collaborative efforts, internally and externally. And, consider using it as a tool for your collaborative efforts — have everyone watch it together and decide on 3–5 short-term and 1–2 long-term areas of collaboration to improve this year.

And, we’d love to hear about your collaboration wins and the steps you took to achieve them.

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