The Power of Collaboration

Last week I had the good fortune to attend three wonderful community events in the span of about 24 hours: a volunteer appreciation luncheon for the United Way of the Quad Cities, a retirement party and welcoming reception for the new president of the Community Foundation of the Great River Bend, and the 15th anniversary breakfast for the Quad City Health Initiative. These three wonderful organizations and the people who work for and with them share a common aim to use volunteerism, philanthropy and collaboration to improve the lives of individuals in this community. 

I walked away not only having connected with friends and colleagues from across the community and meeting some interesting new people, but also with a sense of pride in all that this community has accomplished and continues to accomplish to make everyone’s lives better.


With more and more funding agencies requiring – or at least strongly encouraging – collaboration, I also walked away thinking about lessons that other organizations can draw from these three (and many others) who make collaboration look so easy when we know it is not. 


Look for Collaborative Opportunities wherever you go.


Too often we see organizations with similar missions as ours as competitors when we should look for ways to work together to expand our mission and services.

Do other organizations perform certain services or reach certain constituents better than you do? Could you reach more people or serve your current clients better by working together? How about complementary organizations? For example, if you provide health care for low-resourced people, can an arts organization add value for your clients with an arts therapy program? Funders abhor duplicative services and, like you learned in kindergarten, love to see organizations working together to share resources. How can your organization collaborate?

Choose your Partners Carefully.

Just like you would never marry just anyone (I assume!), you should select the organizations with whom you partner very carefully. In a collaboration, your reputation becomes tied to theirs.

  • Can you proudly say that you have partnered with this organization? You do not want something at the other organization to stain your image so do your due diligence.

  • On a more philosophical level, do your values match? While you might both provide services for homeless veterans, do you approach it in a similar fashion?

  • When push comes to shove, will you both view the program through a similar values perspective?

  • More pragmatically, is the organization financially stable or looking at you as their savior?

  • Do they follow through and deliver what they promise? Do you? 

Nurture Collaborative Partnerships.

Just like a marriage, collaborative relationships require nurturing with careful and frequent communication. You cannot assume that you both have the same perceptions of things even if you have shared values. When in doubt, ask. When not in doubt, perception check (“I heard you say this; is that what you mean?”) Meet regularly, openly share frustrations and successes, and have fun. Authors John Kania and Mark Kramer argue that long-term social change requires true alignment of collaborating organizations with a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support. The three organizations that celebrated milestones last week all succeed in taking Kania and Kramer’s social impact approach. 


What can you do to improve upon your existing collaborations or make them more impactful?

Funders increasingly ask nonprofit organizations to collaborate to leverage their funds and make a more lasting impact. While collaborations take time and effort, the right collaborations allow you to expand your impact exponentially.


As the adage goes, “Many hands make light work.”