Collaboration is Easy to Discuss and Difficult to Do

CollaborationEvery day the news carries another story about the work in Washington, DC to negotiate a deal on the debt limit and serious debt reduction activities.  The issues are familiar – potential spending reductions and potential tax increases.  One side will not budge from its position of no new taxes – and the other will not budge on its position of achieving results with new taxes and limited spending reductions.  We know they need to collaborate to solve this – yet they are providing a good example of what collaboration is not. Over the next few weeks we will discover if they do learn the meaning of the word.

In the meantime, in our own communities, we have the ability to collaborate every day – and yet in the nonprofit world I tend to see more competition than collaboration.  How can we set an example to work with other nonprofit organizations that have similar missions, values, and services?  Is there a chance to provide improved services to the community utilizing fewer resources and thus improving efficiencies?  Do organizations ever attempt to discover the answer to these questions?

In several cities across America there have been attempts to collaborate on back office services among nonprofit groups.  There has been collaboration on motor vehicles, insurance, human resources, facilities, training, and financial book keeping.  Could there be more?  If not for a number of barriers to collaboration, I believe it would be even more common.

Usually collaboration brings some initial costs – some of them financial – and some of them emotional.  The financial cost is typically an upfront expenditure – or an investment in establishing the systems to collaborate – though these should bring a long term reduction in costs thus providing efficiencies for the future.  The barrier to moving forward on this collaboration is the dollar amount of the initial investment.

Or maybe the barrier is the willingness to sit down and discover if savings can truly be made.  This is the emotional investment of time and energy – and may require the ability to let go of “control” of an aspect of the organization.  This emotional investment may, for some, be harder than the financial investment.

The above examples refer to back office or support services – and not to program delivery.  Collaboration on program delivery can become an even more difficult task.  But there are plenty of examples of effective program delivery through collaboration as well.

Two of my children attended Whitworth University in Spokane, WA, which is also the home of the more famous Gonzaga University.  The two schools had a very good reciprocal program where students could take a course at the other university, at no extra cost, if it was not offered at their primary university.  There were limits of course, but I found this collaboration well worthwhile for the universities and the students.  I am also aware that other institutions of higher learning across the country have similar programs, though education is not the only sector involved in collaboration.

Over the next six months think about ways you could collaborate with another nonprofit and begin a dialogue for how that might be accomplished – be it back office or program related.  What examples have you witnessed in the past or recently?  What were the results? What ideas would you like to try?  Is there another organization you could work with to implement these ideas?  Share your suggestions for and experiences in collaboration here.  I am sure that untried opportunities abound!

All the best,


3 thoughts on “Collaboration is Easy to Discuss and Difficult to Do

  1. Tom: Great article and worthy of further discussion and reaching other organizations with similar likes. We are currently in the process of establishing an alliance / collaboration with a group of highly visible individuals. More to follow as it unfolds. Thanks for your thoughts and ideas especially in the nonprofit world.

  2. I recently attended a focus group meeting on hunger. The group was given four different areas to invest their money and had to select their top choice. The top choice was money for community collaboratives over money to proven institutions, new research, or preventive measures. One significant factor is to get a broad buy in by the community so that they see themselves as part of the solution instead of detachment from the problem and solution.

    Our organization is moving forward in various communities to serve those in greatest need, but we are only moving forward as part of a community collaborative. In some situations, we are the lead organization, but often we are stepping back and allowing others to take the lead in order to build the collaboration. Making a commitment to the greater good over personal interests is the key and the biggest hurdle. What is best for me may not be best for the community.

  3. Joe Lawless says:

    Tom, good work on an increasingly relevant topic. The same barriers that are keeping the process from proceeding in DC (ego and self-interest), often times, unfortunately, enter into the nonprofit collaboration equation. There are plenty of places to point fingers, but the board hires the ED and creates their incentives. I would argue that it is a governance role to take the responsibility to create the incentives to collaborate.
    Creativity and big thinking in the board room can create a culture that encourages collaboration and gives staff the permission and the incentive to seek collaborative opportunities.

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