This can be an incredibly difficult question to answer!
Anyone in the nonprofit space can give you examples of wonderful collaborations they have been a part of where the outcome was far greater than either organization could have achieved on its own. These collaborative wins are fuel for high impact nonprofit missions – the veritable magic that can make 1+1=3 …or 4 …more.
And yet, anyone involved with nonprofit work can also give you examples of when collaboration was an organizational killer – the precipitating factor that derailed an organization’s mission, culture, or effectiveness. Collaborating on the wrong projects or executing collaborative efforts poorly can result in mission creep, stretching an organization too thin and diluting their impact.
When you consider what nonprofits do and the kind of people that tend to work in the nonprofit space, it is easy to see why the idea of collaborating can get so confusing. When you bring inclusion-minded change-makers together around a mission there is an inevitable desire to grow – to include more people to do more of the good they do more quickly for the communities they serve. As a result, balancing program expansion with the potential for mission creep is tricky.
So, when should you collaborate with likeminded organizations and when should you do the work yourself? Let’s take a look at how to make these kinds of difficult decisions.
When to Collaborate
As Paula Schneider explains in an article on how nonprofits can affect real change,
Like any other business, nonprofit organizations spend a lot of time thinking about how to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace. How are they helping feed the homeless or heal the sick? What makes what they do and how they do it unique and worthy of support? This type of inward thinking is critical in developing impactful marketing and fundraising solicitations. However, when your goal is making real, lasting change, it is just as important to look outside of your organization. As much as we’d like to think our nonprofit organizations are uniquely equipped to change the world, we can’t always do it on our own. If we’re to have a true and lasting impact on our missions, partnerships are an essential part of our existence.
Undoubtedly, gains can be realized when some organizations work with other organizations. In fact, many foundations ask on their applications for prospective recipients to demonstrate what collaboration is already underway. They want to see that your organization “plays well with others” in what you are trying to do. However, that does not mean every collaborative attempt is going to be effective.
Before collaborating with another organization, you should be able to articulate what your organization hopes to gain in doing so. As an exercise, try to answer these questions:
Collaboration is best utilized when working together results in:
When collaborating offers these types of benefits joining an association or coalition, launching joint programs, sharing referrals, providing support functions, or even merging with another organization may make sense to pursue. However, regardless of what the collaboration looks like, it should be clear who is responsible for ownership over the project and will take credit for the success or failure of the project.
When to Do It Yourself
Despite the many potential benefits of collaborating, we all know from experience that collaboration is not always the best idea. A lot can go wrong. The organizations may not be the right match to work together. The programs may not be the right fit for the audiences. The organizational resources may be insufficient to achieve desired goals. The key is in figuring that out before an agreement to work together is ever finalized. Remember, the most important thing your nonprofit can do is pursue its core mission and let others come alongside your organization to support that work in ways that allow it to work effectively. Once you have found your niche, stick with it and be intentional about evaluating possible collaborations through the filter of whether they support your mission.
Avoiding Mission Creep
The biggest risk of nonprofit collaboration is what is referred to as “mission creep.”
Sure, nonprofits need to evolve organically to serve the ongoing needs of their audience. However, that should only happen IF the changes they are making are aligned with their core mission goals. But when nonprofits expand their efforts outside of their original scope with activities that do not support their core mission, that is mission creep.
Mission creep is not only inefficient, but also dangerous. The risks of a creeping mission include:
The best way to avoid mission creep is to choose collaborations wisely. Strategically weigh partnership opportunities with an eye on how they will affect the overall mission and communicate expectations around organizational alignment.
When your board needs help setting mission scope and making strategic planning decisions, contact us. We provide nonprofit board advisory services to some of today’s most dynamic organizations. Find out how our experienced nonprofit leaders and consultants can come alongside your board to affect real change and improve the community it serves.
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