In case you missed it, a short humorous piece I wrote for generocity.org in the spring.
Nonprofit Partnerships: Harder than Ordering Pizza
Nonprofit partnerships are hard. If you can avoid collaborations, you should. Think about the last time you tried to get a group of friends or family to decide on what type of pizza to order, or where to go for dinner. That’s hard enough. Then replace each individual with an organization with a variety of priorities and approaches to solving the same problem. Are you banging your head against the wall yet?
I know how difficult this can be. I work at the Urban Affairs Coalition as part of the Freedom Rings Partnership, a collaborative effort of over 16 government, education, and nonprofit organizations. We are working to close the digital divide, and we’ve accomplished a lot. But it isn’t always easy.
Despite the difficulties, there’s one very good reason to collaborate—when the problem you are solving is big. Really big. For us, it’s that 41% of Philadelphians don’t have access to the internet, which is vital for employment, education, finding health information, and meaningful community engagement.
If we need to collaborate to solve big problems, we’d better make sure we are collaborating as effectively as possible, so our energy is focused more on solving the big problems than squabbling over the little ones. If you find yourself unable to avoid collaboration, here are a few simple points to keep in mind.
Communication is Key
You’ve heard it a thousand times. But it’s so true—and so easy to forget. Let’s go back to our friends trying to agree on their pizza order. What happens when the vegetarian requests peppers on the pizza, and it gets reported back as pepperoni. You’ll have some unhappy vegetarians. And you can explain all you want that it was an honest mistake—but they’re hungry, and they aren’t eating pepperoni.
Miscommunications can easily happen between just two people. But when you’re working with dozens or hundreds of people, misunderstandings are even more likely to occur, and even harder to prevent. When collaborating with other organizations, it is necessary to employ extreme vigilance to ensure that your communication lines are clear and open, and that every effort to convey information is thorough and efficient. Otherwise, you’ll spend all your time re-explaining and smoothing over mistakes rather than accomplishing the important job at hand.
Does this mean more meetings? Sometimes, yes. But if you are thoughtful and focused, those meetings can be some of the most productive of your life.
Money is Everything, and it’s Nothing
In the nonprofit world, no money = no program. A partnership is only effective if the groups making up the partnership have funding in place to power their activites. If the organizations don’t have enough funding to accomplish their programs and contribute to the partnership, they will be stretched too thin (although honestly, who isn’t?). They’ll be less effective partners, with insufficient time to commit to communication and distracted by competing priorities.
Perhaps even worse, the partnership runs the risk of falling into the politics of the scarcity mindset, where each organization sees the other as a competitor, scrambling for the same funding and hurting themselves and the partnership at the same time. A good partnership creates opportunity and abundance, not scarcity.
So some reasonable level of funding is essential for productive collaboration. While it is necessary, it is not in the least sufficient. The partnership needs to have shared goals and a strong sense of collaborate decision making. If an organization is participating in a partnership only because of the funding it brings, they will be a reluctant collaborator. This reduces their effectiveness as a strategic partner, and may even cause them to sow seeds of discord in the partnership. These small disagreements can easily lead to serious rifts and even doom the entire endeavor.
A Partnership is a lot like a Relationship
Marital counselors will tell you that if you want to have a strong relationship, you need to believe in and focus on yourself first, but also be willing to make sacrifices for the other person. Nonprofit partnerships function in much the same way. An organization will obviously prioritize its own goals, and it’s of essential importance for a nonprofit to stay true to its mission. However, there must be a give and take, where the organization is willing to make some changes or concessions for the greater good of the partnership. An organization thinking entirely of itself will not make a good partner, while neither will one that has no direction and allows itself to be entirely subsumed by the collaborative.
Despite these pearls of wisdom, it’s still a struggle every day to stay focused and effective. But practice makes perfect right? So start small, and the next time you’re ordering pizza for a group, keep these principles in mind.