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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How can nonprofits collaborate successfully?

Building framing

Collaboration in the nonprofit sector is a highly effective tool that nonprofit leaders should understand and utilize to improve their organizations and communities. Successful collaborations can reduce overhead, improve funding, and create more significant mission-related impact. Collaboration requires thoughtful consideration and work — by all parties involved — to make them successful. However, utilizing a structured approach to collaboration will reduce the possible complications and maximize the efforts of all participants.

1. Find your why

Common motivations for engaging in collaborative efforts are to gain resources, meet the institutional demands of the sector, or to build relationships with other organizations through existing networks. For a collaboration to be successful, you must continue to dig deep into these motivations. Studies show that “collaboration for collaboration’s sake” does not lead to successful outcomes and can negatively affect an organization’s finances, capacity and reputation in the community. Instead, keep asking “why” questions until you find a meaningful reason for collaborating. Why will more resources help your mission? Why do grantmaking foundations want you to collaborate with others in your community? Finding your why will help the team remain focused and motivated.

2. Perform a self-assessment

Next, you need to ensure that the organization is ready to withstand the added demands of collaboration. Positive organizational culture significantly improves the likelihood of a successful collaboration. Organizations must also realistically address their capacity for financial inputs, staff involvement, time inputs, and administrative oversight. Some organizations may realize that they are not yet ready to add a new collaborative project to the mix — this does not mean failure, nor should it be a stopping point. Continue to develop the skills, resources, and capacity needed and then move forward. 

3. Identify collaborators

There are key traits that you should consider when seeking a collaborative partner. Studies have shown that organizations with similar organizational culture, and shared funding partners and status in the community tend to have better collaborative outcomes. Ideally, organizations will have complementary resources and core competencies to maximize their efforts. When seeking collaborators, board members should leverage their social capital and networks to help create natural bonds that develop from a shared connection.

4. Define the collaboration

As you move forward with solidifying the relationship, organizations should approach conversations with transparency. This phase is instrumental in setting the tone for future interactions. Nonprofit collaborations can take many different forms (see the ASU Lodestar Center’s Models of Collaboration for more information) and the exact structure will be unique to the involved organizations. Communication is the most integral part of a successful collaboration, and organizations should determine the frequency and expected content of communications at the beginning of the partnership. Regardless of any size or financial differences in the organizations, there should be an equal division of authority over the project to reduce power imbalances. Establish key points in the project where there will be opportunities to review the progress and adjust as needed. Finally, organizations should set up a mechanism to resolve potential conflicts.

5. Be a good partner

Throughout the collaboration, organizations must uphold their shared values, remain dedicated to communication and meet the agreed-upon expectations set in the prior phase. Reciprocity is vital — each organization should be prepared to give as much as they want to get out of the partnership. Leaders must remain engaged in the process and routinely recognize the achievements of those involved in the collaboration. Be sure to meet deadlines and key performance indicators defined in the planning stage. If complications arise within your organization that may affect the collaboration, share that information with collaborators — even if it falls outside the scope of your shared project, they might be able to provide assistance or guidance.

6. Evaluate and move forward

As the project winds down, review notes from the formal checkpoints and discuss the outcome of the collaboration with the team. Identify successes, challenges, and possible areas for improvement. Leaders should evaluate the collaborative effort holistically to determine if it can be grown, modified, or discontinued.

The nonprofit sector is uniquely positioned in American society in that it can be more creative and agile than government, and more collaborative and transparent than businesses. This quality allows nonprofits to address the needs of communities in more dynamic ways through thoughtful and well-planned collaborations.

Jordan Drake is a graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. She began her career in the nonprofit sector as a nurse, then received her bachelor's degree from The University of North Texas with an emphasis on rehabilitation studies. Jordan is the director of program development for Special Abilities of North Texas, a nonprofit organization that provides daytime programs and support to adults with developmental disabilities.

Jordan Drake


ASU Lodestar Center Blog