The current economic climate is causing many nonprofits to seriously consider collaborating with other organizations, but the path to successful collaboration is often more difficult than many expect.
The potential benefits are obvious: better service to clients through program synergy, lower overhead costs via economies of scale, increased scope of service, or simply letting someone else do something that theyre better at. However, there are complexities at every turn, and critical decisions need to be made in every phase of the process.
This is why using data to help shape the collaboration process is so important.
Because collaboration often stimulates questions on organizational identity and personal roles, it frequently stirs up deeply emotional reactions to possible changes. Too often, these well-intended, but emotional responses cloud up the best approach to beneficial collaboration.
To help ensure a successful outcome, consider the following five data-driven steps. They take time to perform, but bypassing them increases the chances of problems or failure.
Its critical for an organization seeking collaboration be clear about the nature and magnitude of the intended benefit. A collaboration thats oriented to reducing costs will proceed very differently than one thats focused on improving or expanding services to clients. Similarly, looking for a small benefit will proceed very differently from an order-of-magnitude improvement. Explicit clarity is needed to ensure internal alignment and the right search for the right potential partners.
2) Searching for the Right Partner
The key in this step is to objectively explore the fit” between the two, or more, organizations. When the AIDS Action Committee was exploring a merger with Cambridge Cares About AIDS there was a deep discussion of the cultural fit between the two. The sense that they were culturally compatible helped cement their eventual connection. However, cultural fit is only one aspect that needs assessment. In addition, program fit, strategy fit, and financial fit must be assessed to see if possible collaborators will be able to operate together in the future. Too often, mis-alignments show up after implementation and cause havoc. Only by a thoughtful assessment of fit, can organizations begin to assess the nature and identity of possible collaborative partners.
The truth is, collaboration is actually a spectrum of possible connections that spans from mild cooperation to a merger of two into one. In this phase, its important for all parties to be clear about where on this continuum they expect the collaboration to land. One possible collaboration between two community services agencies ended when it became clear, after several conversations, that there was a serious mismatch on destinations. One was seeking a potential merger; the other was only hoping for a shared new program.
In addition, it is in this phase that an impact assessment of all stakeholders is needed. By this I mean an objective review of how the collaboration would affect clients, staff, boards, funders, and leadership. This is the time to think clearly about what the collaboration would actually mean for all involved. Issues around structure and power need to be surfaced and addressed. Questions such as these would need to be answered: Who would lose power in this change? Who might be better served? Who might lead the new entity? Who might resist? What unintended consequences might occur? The culmination of this phase should be an agreement by all parties to proceed.
This is the detailed work of planning all the details in advance of implementation. If the collaboration is significant, this is when accountants and lawyers might become involved. But the core of this work is a data-rich project plan that includes all the whos, whats, whens, and hows of the implementation of the collaboration. Its also the time for due diligence to ensure that risks are identified and mitigated. The transition plan for two social service agencies was a multi-page Gantt chart that tracked the program, staff, and financial aspects of the planned collaboration in explicit, clear, and aligned detail.
5) Implementation and Assessment
This is the execution of the plan, the realization of the collaboration, and includes an after-action review to harvest the learnings of the process.
In every one of the above steps, information, not emotions, play a critical role in moving forward. Best intentions and hope do not drive success. Only hard work, discipline, and data can ensure meaningful collaboration.