Laying the Groundwork for Collaboration

November 14, 2012

Collaboration has long been a buzzword for nonprofits and foundations, and it’s become the subject of renewed interest in recent years as various networked and cross-sector models have emerged. Yet even as economic and social challenges spur some organizations toward collaboration, the same pressures force others inward and make it even harder for those leaders to consider pulling their time and attention from what’s going on within their own walls.

The benefits of collaboration are real, but how do organizations that may already feel stretched to the brink take those first steps?

Here are three ways you can lay the groundwork for collaboration:

1) Work Your Networks

Collaboration depends on relationships, but don’t presume that strong relationships are developed only after a collaborative goal has been defined. In fact, what we usually find is that successful collaborations are built on preexisting relationships. In this context, “Let’s do lunch” is more than a bad 1980’s cliché. It’s an important networking strategy that nonprofit leaders can reclaim to establish and grow professional connections with peers. Taking the time to reach out and network, even just once a month, allows leaders (whether executives, senior staff, or board members) to share their challenges and successes in a no-pressure context, discover common concerns, and build mutual trust. 

2) Have Candid Conversations

Making the most of networks and relationships means having meaningful conversations. Leaders can take these opportunities not just to compare notes, but to share knowledge about trends and problem-solve together about how to respond to them. Some topics to consider include:

  • How is the economy impacting your funding from governmental and private sources?
  • How are your clients’ needs changing, and how are you adapting?
  • How are policy changes impacting your work, now and/or in the long-term?
  • How are you using technology to provide services, reach stakeholders, etc.?
  • Who else should we include in these conversations?

Candid exchange creates the conditions in which a collaborative idea can emerge. Even if the conversation has nothing to do with collaboration directly, it establishes a ready rapport for when a collaborative opportunity does come along.

3) Know Your Options

Understanding the challenges and aspirations of other community organizations, and learning where there are commonalities or complementary strengths, is just a first step. Learning about the different ways organizations can work together is also important to thinking about collaboration. Collaboration exists along a continuum, though often people can only see one extreme or the other. For example, many nonprofits say they collaborate because they refer clients to one another or sit on a task force together, which requires cooperation but sometimes very little real collaboration. On the other hand, some assume that when two organizations get together to talk about collaboration, a merger must be in the works, which is also an exaggeration. In truth, there are a range of options, and understanding what these are helps to open up the conversation and reduce the anxiety of thinking only in extremes. When it comes to collaboration, organizations are limited only by their own imaginations and appetite for change.

Thanks for reading,

Bob and Melissa

This blog was collaboratively written by Bob Harrington, Partner and Melissa Mendes Campos, Senior Research Consultant, both with La Piana Consulting. Please visit La Piana consulting’s website here.

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