To collaborate, nonprofits must lower defenses, keep their agendas out in open AT WORK


(Second of 2 parts)

Collaboration as a concept may be in, but in practice too many nonprofits stop short of true collaboration. Instead, they may cooperate or coordinate -- but that's far less of a commitment than collaborative ventures.

A recent report on collaboration in the nonprofit sector, published by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation of St. Paul, Minn., provides readers with a wealth of information. The report is a prelude to a forthcoming workbook on the same topic.

The authors begin this concise report by first providing the reader with working definitions of cooperation, coordination and collaboration.

They then synthesize the findings from 18 major research studies of collaborative efforts in a wide variety of fields. From this, 19 factors of successful collaboration are discussed. They are grouped into six categories. A useful addition is the use of a checkmark system to indicate the number of times each factor was identified by the studies as critical.

Last week I mentioned one of the categories -- environment. The authors found that collaboration is most successful when there is a history of collaboration in the community and the partners are seen as leaders in their fields.

A second category relates to membership characteristics. For collaborations to work there needs to be mutual respect, understanding and trust, an appropriate cross-section of members and a common view that the effort is in everyone's best interest. The ability to compromise also helps.

My experience is that the absence of any of these factors has xTC torpedoed many an attempt at collaboration. Let's take recent efforts across the country to attack problems related to youth at risk.

This is an area crying out for collaboration. It is a national shame that so many of our children fall through the cracks.

We frequently have a multitude of community groups, each with its unique history and well-tended (or should I say "defended"?) turf. Too often, I have seen these well-meaning groups look with disdain at other groups serving the same population.

The end result is an attitude problem that subverts any attempts to work together to affect real change.

One potential pitfall that I counsel nonprofits seeking collaborative partners is that they must be upfront about their agenda. Potential partners should not be left guessing whether there is a hidden agenda. This is also an effective policy when a nonprofit contemplates a joint marketing venture with a for-profit corporation.

Another category cited in the report is that of purpose.

Early on, partners should set specific, achievable goals and objectives. There should be a shared mission common to the new venture, and one that is slightly different in thrust than that of any of the individual partners' organizations. Finally, there needs to be a shared vision of where this whole venture will take the partners. How will the world of the beneficiaries -- and the partnership organizations -- be different at the end of this venture?

In terms of resources, another grouping noted by the authors, there of course needs to be enough funding to succeed.

Otherwise, it should be lined up prior to embarking on the project. There also needs to be a skilled facilitator who has the organizing ability to get the partnership off the ground.

In the category of process and structure, the authors identified several factors that influence success.

First, members must each have a stake in both the process and outcome of the effort. Next, each member should include staff from each level of decision-making in the joint effort. There should be clear roles and guidelines for participants. And, there needs to be some degree of flexibility and adaptability to accommodate a changing environment. That may mean changes goals or even membership over time.

The final category, communication, offers no secrets. For a collaborative venture to work, there needs to be open, frequent, formal and informal communications among all members.

The collaboration report is available from the A. H. Wilder Foundation/MSS, 919 Lafond Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55104. The cost is $13.95, including postage, a rare bargain in terms of useful information.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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