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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Research Friday: Trust and Collaboration

Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing weekly series, each Friday we invite a nonprofit expert to highlight current research reports or studies and discuss how they can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice.

Collaboration among nonprofit organizations is near to becoming a necessity. Driven by waning resources and increasing demand, nonprofits are entering an era of “accelerated interdependence.”1 Cooperation has proven to be efficient in enduring through meager means,2 and expectation among donors reflects this philosophy.3 However, inter-organizational collaboration is not a mere exercise in sustainability. Recognition of the combined capacity, or collective impact, for large-scale change has redefined the sector. The individual outcomes that single organizations are capable of can rarely produce large-scale, comprehensive advancement.  While resource sharing is a practical motivation for collaboration, the possibility of large-scale, authentic social shifts is fueling collective effort and redefining longstanding limits. 

Accepting that collective impact relies on dedication to a common agenda, it becomes evident that interaction is at the heart of the effort. In an environment of shared risks, responsibilities and rewards, relationships sustain the system. Because infrastructure alone cannot completely support a collaborative undertaking,4 the creation and maintenance of relationships is the most vital element of inter-organizational work.5 To foster the quality relationships so critical to inter-organizational operations, nonprofit leaders are compelled to recognize the underpinning of interdependence: trust.

Mutual trust supports collective action6 and is the main agent of contribution and coordination.7 The power of trust exists primarily in its effect on information exchange. It facilitates knowledge distribution because it deeply influences one’s willingness to share.8 Benchmarking, negotiation and evaluation are all critical to collaboration and dependent on reliable interchange.  Trust also influences the accuracy and level of information shared. If stakeholders are uncertain or under-confident about the environment in which they operate, the withholding of information is a potential threat.  The risks of opportunism creates resistance, which interferes with the information exchange required to build competencies and capabilities.9

It is not easy to develop and preserve trust among collaborative partners. The diversity that defines these unions creates complication, as does internal capacity.  Recognizing key contributing elements of sustainable collaborations, however, can better guide leaders preparing for the endeavor.

  • The creation and promotion of a clearly defined mutual goal goes a long way toward hampering anxiety of the unknown.10 Relationships created among one another must also exist with the purpose itself. Individual investment into a potent collective promotes solidarity. 11
  • Dedication to active communication achieves increased certainty, improving information exchange and creating a cyclically reinforcing, cohesive system. Quality communication requires purpose, pertinence, and formal and informal exchange across all organizational levels.12
  • Time is an incredible influence on the establishment of trust. Time builds intimacy, creates shared experiences, and allows deep perspective on the common motives behind individual efforts. Time set aside should account for both actual and lapsed: actual time helps achieve mutual understanding and build credible commitments; lapsed time fosters accountability and smooth logistics.13

Whether motivated by the necessity for shared resources or the potential for monumental change, nonprofits are engaging in collaboration. Well-defined goals, careful and consistent communication, and patience will help furnish effective interdependency. As leaders recognize the influence of trust on productive collaboration, they may more confidently move forward in this new era. 

Sarah is a recent graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Studies program at ASU. She has worked in grant administration since 2005 and dedicates her free time to skating and fundraising for Arizona Roller Derby.


^ [1] Austin, James E . 2000 . Strategic Collaboration between Nonprofits and Business . Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 29 ( 1 ): 69 – 97.

^ [2] Kohm, Amelia. "Cooperating to survive and thrive: innovative enterprises among nonprofit organizations." Nonprofit World. 16.3 (1998): 36-44.

^ [3]Takahashi, Lois. Smutny, Gayla. "Collaborative windows and organizational governance: exploring the formation and demise of social service partnerships." Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. 31.2 (2002): 165-185.

^ [4] Thomson, Ann Marie. Perry, James. "Collaboration processes: inside the black box." Public Administration Review. Special issue. (2006): 20-32.

^ [5] Newell, Sue. Swan, Jacky. "Trust and inter-organizational networking." Human relations. 53.10 (2000): 1287-1328.

^ [6] Ostrom, Elinor. “Collective Action and the Evelution of Social Norms.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives. 14.3 (2000): 137-158.

^ [7] McEvily, Bill. Perrone, Vincenzo. Zaheer, Akbar. "Trust as an organizing principle." Organization Science. 14.1 (2003): 91-103.

^ [8] Lee, Pauline. Gillespie, Nicole. Mann, Leon. Wearing, Alexander. "Leadership and trust: their effect on knowledge sharing and team performance." Management Learning. 41.1 (2010): 473-491.

^ [9] Droege, Scott. Anderson, Jonathan. Bowler, Matthew. "Trust and organizational information flow." Journal of Business and Management. 9.1 (2003): 45-59.

^ [10] Prins, Silvia. "From competition to collaboration: critical challenges and dynamics in multiparty collaboration." The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. 46.3 (2010): 281-312.

^ [11] Ospina, Sonia. Saz-Carranza, Angel. "Paradox and collaboration in network management." Administration & Society. 42.4 (2010): 404-440.

^ [12] Rogers, Robin. "Community collaboration: practices of effective collaboration as reported by three urban faith-based social service programs." Social Work & Christianity. 36.2 (2009): 326-345.

^ [13] Thomson, Ann Marie. Perry, James. "Collaboration processes: inside the black box." Public Administration Review. Special issue. (2006): 20-32.


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