Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.
Illustration by Yuxin Qin
Nonprofit interest in cross-sector collaboration is ramping up due to evaporating resources and increased demand for services. In 2018 analysis by Ben Gose, a reported 57% of nonprofits doubted their ability to continue meeting demand, motiving many nonprofit leaders to consider collaboration with other nonprofits and across sector lines in order to increase organizational capacity. “Resources, symbolic attraction of alliance members, and expanded networks” as stated in a review from AIM Alliance, are all compelling benefits to joining forces, however, organizations should proceed with caution as these solutions are not sole problem solvers. The Bridgespan Group reminds leaders that “cross-sector collaboration is a complicated and time-consuming process, given the complexity of the issues and range of stakeholders involved.” So where should nonprofit leaders begin?
There is no “one size fits all” strategy, but all collaboration is rooted in trusted relationships. Nonprofits whose organizational cultures encourage outreach and relationship building are already laying the foundational groundwork of high-performing collaboration. They are setting the stage for transparent communication when evaluating compatibility and complementary “value exchange between partners” are in effect. “Adaptive, transparent, and risk-averse cultures are better prepared to work across boundaries, engage in strategic planning, and participate in teamwork,” as John Bryson said.
Regardless of a project’s scope or number of potential partners, a nonprofit’s next steps should follow a “two-layer process” of assessment and implementation, according to the AIM Alliance of 2009. Layer one, internal assessment, is an exercise in rigorous self-reflection. Results seen in the Partner Readiness Assessment determined sufficient readiness to partners across multiple dimensions including organization and operations, leadership and management, and adaptive or change readiness. The degree to which a nonprofit can articulate the strength of its reach, resources, reputation, and capabilities is an important key in securing productive collaborative relationships. External assessments researched by Hartman and Dhanda examine the “compatibility of prospective partners, a commitment to clear and well-informed mutual goals, and the monitoring and measuring of the impact throughout its lifecycle.” Layer two begins with the implementation process. The Intersector Toolkit provides frameworks that reflect phases of the relationship and support conceptual design, monitoring program elements, and ongoing measurement of milestones or goals.
There are six strategic recommendations as noted in La Piana’s consultation map to ensure your nonprofit’s cross-sector collaboration efforts get a strong start. The key ingredient throughout is undoubtedly trust. “Trust is the oxygen of any successful collaboration, even more than money, time, or mission. If groups trust one another, anything is possible; if they do not, very little can be accomplished.”
- Build a trusted network. Start building relationships of trust with other nonprofit leaders and across sector lines. For a steady and reliable collaboration among nonprofit relationships, Geofunders suggests that, “Staff and Board should study local ecosystems to see who is doing what and where there are opportunities for aligned actions.”
- Clarity of purpose. Are you trying to capitalize on a new opportunity, mitigate a future risk, or address an ongoing challenge? According to La Piana’s practical guide for leaders and professionals, “A partnership, first and foremost, must enhance your ability to deliver on your own mission.”
- Internal assessment. What is the organization’s capacity for partnering? Engage in rigorous self-reflection to gauge readiness across multiple dimensions.
- External partner assessment. The Partnering Initiative advises to communicate clearly with all parties to assess value, risks, and implications of a partnership before entering a partnership agreement.”
- Model selection. Implement a model that aligns most closely with the partners’ mission, capacity, and vision. See AIM Alliance’s eight collaborative models, with conditions, challenges, and benefits assigned to each.
- Measure and share impact. Document and share positive and negative lessons learned, both internally and externally. The Intersector Toolkit suggests sharing results and insights to create transparency, and “… proves the value and legitimacy of cross-sector collaboration, and allows others to learn from, and potentially replicate, the initiative.”
The most successful collaborations are relationships rooted in trust, clarity, communication, and respect. Nonprofit leaders bring unique value to their cross-sector partners, including an authentic connection and proximity to communities they serve. Start small and gain experience while keeping an eye on the long-term possibilities that cross-sector collaboration can deliver to communities across the country. There’s no better time than now to work on strengthening the nonprofit sector.
Karyn Cooks is a graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University and was recently inducted into Nu Lambda Mu, the International Honor Society for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy, and Social Entrepreneurship & Enterprise. She studied at American University’s prestigious Washington Journalism program and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Indiana University, Bloomington. Cooks brings marketing, digital and collaboration strategies to life for nonprofit and for-profit organizations; notably, the first Digital Employee Advocacy program in support of a cross-sector collaboration. Karyn is a Chicago native but has called Los Angeles home since hair bands ruled The Sunset Strip. She serves on the Board of Directors for Los Angeles’ Blank Theatre Company and shares her midcentury-style home with Bowie, a 15-year-old Boston Terrier.