8 Steps to Outcomes-Oriented Collaboration

Nonprofits today are increasingly asked to collaborate. Many fear that with the election results, there will be even greater financial pressure on nonprofits. The philanthropic community has long been calling for nonprofits to reduce the duplication of resources. Despite these pressures, rarely does anyone define what is meant by “collaboration.” Does it mean two nonprofit leaders meet for coffee? Or does it mean deep, programmatic cooperation that results in a measurable collective impact?

At the Nonprofit Centers Network, we are asked about nonprofit collaboration frequently because the shared space centers who make up our 170+ membership were often created with the goal of bringing nonprofits together to collaborate, reduce expenses and find smarter ways to work together. Our members who create these centers are mostly nonprofits themselves, and in many ways see themselves as both a peer to the other nonprofits in their center, but also as the party responsible for making sure collaboration happens.

This dual role for our center operators gave us a window into the inner workings of creating authentic engagement or collaboration among nonprofits who are members or tenants of these centers. Over nine months, a cohort of 20 centers worked diligently in a peer learning community to examine their own practices and find out why the elusive notion of collaboration among their tenant/members wasn’t always working the way they had intended. Based on this nine-month experience, we produced the Collaboration Report, a comprehensive analysis of our learnings and best practices.

What we learned is applicable in many other settings outside of shared spaces, and it applies to those who want to incentivize collaboration (such as funders and other intermediaries) as well as those who are potential partners in collaboration (nonprofits, especially those who are members/tenants of shared spaces). More importantly, these lessons learned came from nonprofits themselves as a ground-up effort. Our collective work led to 8 steps to outcomes-oriented collaboration.

Ask yourself why you want to collaborate.

What can you achieve together that you cannot do alone? Intention is something that we investigated in our project. Our nonprofit center operators had assumed that the tenants (or members) in their centers understood what they meant by collaboration. We discovered that if you are in the role of promoting collaboration among others, you need to articulate your definition of collaboration and what your expectations are for outcomes.

Be clear on what that word means.

Collaboration seems to have a different definition for every person you ask. We started by coming up with our own definition of collaboration (Two or more tenants that work together, informally or formally, toward a common, mutually beneficial goal.) A formal definition is not necessary in every situation, but it’s worth getting very clear on language with potential partners. What do you mean when you say you want to collaborate? How will your behaviors change and to what extent? (Here’s a clue – the more your behavior changes as a result of the “collaboration”, the more robust it will be). You might not have a precise answer the first time you discuss a potential collaboration, but it should be something you clarify, especially if you hope to demonstrate impact.

Respect selfinterest.

It’s ok to act in your (or your organization’s) self-interest. It’s human. If you can find collaborations that truly play to each partner’s self-interest, you have a winner! It’s worth refining what your (or your organization’s) goals are and waiting until the right collaboration comes along that can advance your goals.

It’s ok to act in your (or your organization’s) self-interest. It’s human. If you can find collaborations that truly play to each partner’s self-interest, you have a winner! It’s worth refining what your (or your organization’s) goals are and waiting until the right collaboration comes along that can advance your goals.

Plan for collaboration and consider using a 3rd party for accountability.

We settled on what we call a Collaboration Plan because there can be so many different collaborations happening in a shared space center at any given time. It depends on the number of tenants/members and how many ways they want to interact. But we think having a Collaboration Plan makes sense in lots of situations. Our project involved each center testing what they thought would work. The tests, or prototypes, largely fell into two approaches: either a large group gathering approach or an individual one-on-one approach. Either way, there was agreement that all these approaches were just talk unless there was some way to document what each party committed to doing in order to build in accountability. In a shared space center, the center staff can manage this role, but it seems clear that it’s better to have a 3rd party (someone who isn’t part of the collaboration) keeping all sides accountable.

Make thecollaboration commitmentssimple to understand.

But don’t shy away from the important questions that create the foundation for measurable results. We developed a one-page chart that can be filled out quickly, but it covers key components of deeper engagement:

  • Who will be the lead from each organization?
  • What is the shared activity they will do?
  • What is the goal (what do they hope to accomplish? What can they do together that they can’t do separately?)
  • How will they make decisions with regard to the shared activity? How often will they meet to plan/organize?
  • What resources does each bring to the shared activity?
  • What risks are they each taking on?
  • What impact do they expect to have?
  • When will the shared activity be complete or what milestones are expected?

Meet your partner(s) where they are.

Not everyone has time for working together. Start small and be realistic about what you can do. But don’t let that be an excuse for not trying at all. Having an open mind about considering collaborations is crucial because you never know when the right opportunity will come along. We also found that centers were too focused on top-level collaboration and had to learn to embrace collaborations that happen at all levels of an organization. All relationships can create strong bonds.

Publicize whats going well.

People will emulate behaviors that are rewarded. Communicate to everyone when you see the type of collaboration you want to encourage. It’s ok to smart small. Giving people recognition for their efforts will help others understand what you mean by collaboration and will create an incentive for repeating that behavior.

No one is showing upnow what?

Ask yourself if your goals aren’t clear or if there’s a lack of trust among the partners? Do the goals of the collaboration not line up for all partners? If not, maybe the timing isn’t right? If the goals are compelling, maybe you need to build relationships and trust more. Have the individuals involved changed? There may be a need to regroup and make sure everyone is on the same page.

Nonprofit shared space centers are laboratories for collaboration. We hope that by looking at expectations and outcomes around collaboration from the perspective of peer nonprofits, that these ideas will help lead you on a path to more specific and authentic collaboration.


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Lara Jakubowski

December 20, 2016

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