The Collaboration Trend and Key Takeaways of Good Collaboration

The Collaboration Trend and Key Takeaways of Good Collaboration

Collaboration is “trending.” Arguably a perennial favorite, collaboration has been the topic of numerous studies, articles, and resources in the past year or two alone. Yet while foundations generally welcome the idea of nonprofit collaboration, recent surveys suggest that few directly support the formation of nonprofit partnerships. (See Fig. 1)

Campos - Fig 1

Perhaps after years of being told they should not force the issue of collaboration onto their grantees, foundation leaders feel it best to take a hands-off approach. But there are many ways — appropriate ways — that funders can actively support nonprofit collaboration. One of these involves modeling collaboration itself by joining with other foundations to create pooled funds to support nonprofit partnerships, or to sponsor more robust initiatives offering education, funding, and technical assistance to organizations interested in exploring new ways of working together.

Coming to Terms

Before describing in more detail how funders can join forces to support nonprofit partnerships, it’s important to clarify a few key terms. There is a wide variety of ways that organizations can come together in pursuit of a shared goal, and all of these can generally be called “collaboration.” Even so, there are critical differences to recognize. That’s why at La Piana Consulting we visualize the range of nonprofit partnerships as occupying three levels: Collaboration, Alliance, and Strategic Restructuring.

  • Collaboration may be long-term or short-term, may or may not be formalized in a written agreement, and does not entail any changes to the participants’ corporate structure. Collaboration can include mutually-beneficial efforts like joint advocacy or shared learning.
  • Alliance typically does not entail any changes to corporate structure either, but decision-making power does tend to be shared or even transferred — thus they are more often documented in some kind of formal agreement. Alliances can include ventures such as joint programming or administrative consolidation.
  • Strategic restructuring is the most integrative form of partnership and can include merger or the creation of a joint venture corporation. These require changes to corporate control and/or structure, and may include the formation or dissolution of one or more organizations.

Modeling Collaboration: A Funder Example

In 2010, 18 foundations in the greater Cleveland area came together to launch the Human Services Strategic Restructuring Pilot Project. Developed as a response to the stress being felt by human service organizations as state funding cuts were implemented across Ohio, the Pilot provided information, tools, and consulting assistance to support nonprofits in exploring mergers, joint programming, and other forms of strategic restructuring and alliance. The Pilot was carried out over 12 months in three phases, described in Fig. 2 below.

Human Services Strategic Restructuring Pilot Project: A Snapshot (Fig. 2)

Campos - Fig 2

The Pilot was supported by a three-person consulting team of local and national experts and has been documented by third-party evaluations. (See resource list, below.) The high profile of this Pilot, the involvement of a large number of funders, and ongoing funder support for strategic partnerships has since kept the spirit of nonprofit collaboration alive in Cleveland. Just as importantly, this Pilot project offers useful lessons on successful funder collaboration.

Lessons Learned

Three necessary elements for any kind of collaboration are: clarity of shared purpose, a high level of mutual trust, and strong communication.

Clarity of Shared Purpose

Independently, the 18 funders had become increasingly aware of nonprofits’ interest in exploring strategic restructuring options and their desire for funder support in doing so. The lingering effects of the 2008 recession had made it a matter of some urgency, especially given the health and human service sector’s reliance on shrinking government contracts. For the funders, the collaborative presented an opportunity to address this need more effectively in partnership than each foundation could on its own. United by this common goal, the funders further defined the scope of the Pilot to focus on human services nonprofits in Cuyahoga County. This scope was shaped by, and in turn shaped, the composition of the collaborative itself. On one hand, human services proved a common enough intersection among the participating funders that none were left out. On the other hand, focusing on Cuyahoga County did leave out a couple of funders, although these remained engaged as interested observers of the initiative. Making these and other choices about the scope of the Pilot provided clarity that rooted the effort in a shared purpose while enabling it to move forward.

Takeaway: Collaboration must be guided by a compelling, common goal.

High Level of Mutual Trust

As in many successful collaborations, here a past history of working together helped to set the stage for success. The Pilot was first initiated with the help of the Ohio Grantmakers Forum as a convener, and several participating funders were already part of the Fund for Our Economic Future, a collaborative aiming to strengthen the economic competitiveness of Northeast Ohio through grantmaking, research, and civic engagement. Several funders had also already engaged in other joint efforts in pairs and other small groups. This collaborative culture among the funder partners provided a strong foundation of tested relationships and established trust upon which to build. Pilot co-chair Denise Zeman (President and CEO of St. Luke’s Foundation at the time) described how this worked to the funders’ advantage: “We have a strong base of trust and respect for each other. We like each other and didn’t have to work through lots of junk. All this helped make the collaboration much easier.”

Takeaway: Collaboration is built on, and in turn helps to build, trusting relationships.

Strong Communication

Communication makes collaboration work. Strong communication is critical not only for sharing information about the scope of the issue to be addressed, the activities being undertaken by the collaborative, and the results of those activities, but for making clear the mutual agreements that define the “rules of the game.” How will you pool resources? How will you share responsibility, and credit, for progress toward your common goal? Such internal communication among the collaborative partners is essential, but so is external communication with stakeholders outside of the collaborative. For the Pilot, a communications consultant was engaged to support not only the collaborative itself, but any nonprofits that might encounter a public relations challenge related to their new partnership (though the need for the latter never arose). Having this expertise on hand was particularly helpful in launching the pilot and communicating its intent to external stakeholders, especially since funder intentions are so often a topic of speculation among nonprofits.

Takeaway: Communicate, communicate, communicate!

In addition to these three key elements of successful collaboration, the Human Services Strategic Restructuring Pilot demonstrated three attributes that might be considered “Collaboration 2.0” — flexibility, shared leadership, and an orientation toward learning.

As important as it is to define clear expectations and operating procedures to guide the day-to-day work of a collaborative, all this structure can actually be strengthened by a certain level of flexibility. In Ohio, the ease with which the funders worked together was due in part to flexibility built into the Pilot’s design. For example, each funder was allowed to choose its own level of investment; no specific financial contribution was required to participate, and contributions ranged from $5,000 to over $50,000. Despite this, all funders were treated equally. Flexibility was also a hallmark of the communications style of the collaborative. Ongoing communication occurred through various channels, including written reports, in-person convenings, conference calls, and emails. Further, meeting attendance was made easier by allowing funders to send alternates when their primary liaison was unavailable. This ability to meet partners where they are at, and to adapt as necessary to achieve desired results, is not always possible, but in this case contributed to the collaboration’s success.

Collaboration can be very challenging to traditional notions of leadership. Often, collaborations require equality in decision making and/or shared leadership. The Cleveland Pilot operated on consensus-based decision making, and was co-chaired by Denise Zeman and Deborah Vesy (President and CEO of Deaconess Community Foundation), the duo who originally led the effort to initiate the collaborative. This shared leadership proved successful, leveraging the best of two different voices and work styles and allowing each to provide backup to the other when demands outside of the Pilot required their attention. The leadership role in collaborations is critical for managing the flow of communication, for resolving conflicts as needed, and for keeping the group true to its goals — but it need not be filled by one person alone.

Finally, the Ohio funders recognized the need to learn more about how to be most helpful to their grantees in forming partnerships. As a result, they intentionally approached the Pilot in learning mode. “We wanted to learn how to serve this need, this interest, and then use that knowledge to ensure that this kind of support becomes something that is available to nonprofits in all sectors on an ongoing basis,” said Zeman. The Pilot structure enabled this deep learning by emphasizing phased implementation, documentation, and evaluation at each step along the way. In planning the initiative, the funders first looked at other models from elsewhere in the state and nationally. Today, their Pilot — in turn — serves as models to others.

The Conversation Continues

In March 2012, a dozen leaders from the philanthropic community gathered in San Francisco to talk about their shared interest in supporting nonprofit collaboration and strategic restructuring.  During the one-day convening, the group explored the state of the field and the appetite for partnerships, the practical nuts-and-bolts of different approaches to supporting collaboration, how to engage other funder partners in providing support to nonprofit grantees, and what it would take to work together better as foundations to advance this shared goal. One of the crucial lessons that emerged was to “speak in terms of ‘we.’” As one participant put it, “Funders, organizations, and the community all need to work together. We need to say (as funders): ‘We don’t have all the answers, but we want to support you.’”

Since then, La Piana Consulting has helped other funders launch initiatives similar to the Ohio collaborative. In the fall of 2012, the Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative (NSI) was launched by the California Community Foundation, the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, and the Weingart Foundation. The original three funders were then joined by the Ahmanson Foundation, The Annenberg Foundation, The California Endowment, the Carol & James Collins Foundation, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, The James Irvine foundation, and the JP Morgan Chase Foundation in contributing a total of $2.2 million to help Los Angeles area nonprofits like these explore and implement formal partnerships and restructuring efforts to become more sustainable and to increase their community impact.

What is your foundation doing to support collaboration — and to model it? What’s your next step?


Resource List

To learn more about the Human Services Strategic Restructuring Pilot Project, see:

  • Summary Report (2011), by La Piana Consulting
  • A Journey of Learning (2011), by John A. Yankey, Janet W. Coquillette, Susan L. Eagan, and Carol K. Willen
  • Follow-up Study (2013), by John A. Yankey, Janet W. Coquillette, Mary Anne Crampton, and Carol K. Willen


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