Nonprofits and community groups provide vital support in a range of important civic areas but as leaders of our respective organizations, we could be doing more to help one another. One major area in the nonprofit sector that is ripe for evolution is the issue of collaboration between fellow nonprofits. While I know plenty of great people who work in the nonprofit sector with a wide range of organizations, there is a real gap when it comes to nonprofits working together to amplify each other’s missions. In other words, nonprofits struggle to collaborate.
And we’re collaborative people!
Working with and for the communities we serve requires a real ability to listen, adjust, communicate, and co-create, so we’re good at this. But seeing other nonprofits as worthwhile partners is a hurdle and it’s probably due to our own limiting views.
That said, when I think about the reasons why collaboration between nonprofits are rare, it’s due to real structural issues. These issues, namely funding, is the competitive monkey wrench that keeps nonprofits from working together productively.
It’s too bad, because there are plenty of creative ways that we could support one another’s strategic & mission goals. The good news is that there’s nothing but upside to rethinking collaboration between nonprofits.
Ahead I unpack the top 5 reasons why nonprofits struggle to collaborate.
Reason #1: They’re often competing for the same dollars.
One of the biggest pain points in the nonprofit sector is the constant vying for funding needed to support the work. Whether grant writing, relationship building with foundation program managers, or fundraising, most nonprofits are not only spending a lot of time, energy, and resources to secure that funding, they’re also pitted against their fellow organizations for those same dollars.
There are ways to diffuse that, namely implementing real earned income, i.e. mission-aligned fee-for-service work, but the fact that most nonprofits haven’t swung far enough in that direction means that nonprofit boards and executive staff have very much adopted the competition mindset.
This is inherently anti-collaborative and pushes nonprofit leadership into scarcity mindsets that create a social barrier to any positive collaboration with other nonprofits. This may be the single biggest reason that nonprofits struggle to collaborate.
We need to embrace mission-aligned revenue streams that reduce our competition for the same funds that the gatekeepers want us to be dependent on. This will free us up to create value, solve problems, and collaborate productively.
Reason #2: Time & money is often stretched.
The sheer demand for our time and the need to have team members do multiple tasks means that oftentimes a collaboration with another organization (that might also be struggling to fund their work) isn’t necessarily top of mind. And that makes sense.
But there is plenty of room to think about how one of our organization’s might have apples, while the other has oranges. The question is, how can one organization’s positive resource be passed along for benefit to another organization. That could be a connection, relationships, byproduct, or actual overflow resources that meet your need. Then figure out the reciprocal version of that and you have a real, beneficial partnership.
This type of partnership might even reduce your need for cash. And by consistently setting aside a small % of time to ask some strategic questions (like the ones below), you can probably start dreaming up a really beneficial collaboration with another nonprofit.
Questions to Ask: How are goals aligned? How does one organization’s work facilitate for another? How can resources or connections be maximized, recycled, reused, or passed along? What’s more, how can you help another organization meet its mission?
Reason #3: Foundations rarely fund collaborations.
For as many RFP’s that are released for nonprofits to write grants and win funding, there are rarely grants that focus on this area of nonprofit collaboration, of overlaps, of efficiencies, of apples traded for oranges.
One reason for this is the issue of accountability. It could theoretically be harder to get reporting when two organizations are effectively the grantee, but it doesn’t have to be.
The second is a bit more insidious, and it goes back to the fact that foundations aren’t really interested in nonprofits collaborating to maximize their impact. That is one way the grantmaker gatekeeping is diffused, and it’s also the reason we should focus on collaboration – it’s an operational area each nonprofit can control, so we should make sure to do exactly that.
Reason #4: Most nonprofits start really small in budget & organization.
Starting small with a bootstrapped budget & tiny team is one sure-fire way of achieving tunnel vision. Focus is great, but being worried about the bottom line can relegate collaboration to the end of the list.
The reality is that we just need to think about collaboration in terms of social & programmatic resources. Relationships with other organizations give us communities to both support and ask for help. Connecting with a smattering of different cause-driven groups can help you learn more about their work and model, which will also probably yield helpful insight that will catapult a worthwhile collaborative project.
Being ready to learn and willing to help is a great way to connect. Natural collaborations will undoubtedly come from that space.
Reason #5: The models for cause-work need rethinking.
All four of the reasons listed above reflect this, the largest major structural issue that prevents a true collaborative spirit from overtaking the mission-driven sector – a lack of realistic & sustainable development models that are diversified, efficient, winnable, and evolutionary.
vIdeally, this begins before the nonprofit is founded but it can also happen through agile strategy aboard your moving train.
Hitting the reset button to be able to strategize for sustainable revenue, programs, & mission delivery, means our organizations will be able to think clearly, plan ahead, and collaborate more effectively. If collaboration for the betterment of the world is our ethos as leaders of nonprofit organizations, that same spirit needs to be built into the way our teams and missions overlap.
Our sector needs to change to make it possible, but partnerships between nonprofits are likely to be the boost we all need. Hopefully these kinds of conversations are doing the needed work to change the reasons why nonprofits struggle to collaborate.
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