Building Capacity...

—> Through Collaboration

No matter how rich in skill or experience, no organization or government agency can do it all. The good news, though, is that none has to do so. Between the extremes of overreaching and scaling back there is a third alternative. We can work jointly with each other. In short, we can collaborate.

Some nonprofit boards and executives work under the assumption that the need to collaborate indicates a failing or shortcoming of some kind. To be sure, during times of constrained resources, an organization may be well advised to seek out strategic partners in the performance of its mission; but there is good reason to collaborate even when resources are abundant, and in recognition of this reality, the Center dedicates much of its consulting and training services precisely to this — to collaboration.

Ultimately we all collaborate anyway — even if not always in a coordinated way. For instance, seldom do relationships operate in a single direction. When we work with clients, funders, or citizens in the community we negotiate and collaborate. So even absent a formal structure, collaboration can take place.

By building on the informal network in the nonprofit and public sectors which is already in place, and also by forging new relationships, the Center can help you get much more out of collaboration. The collaborative relationships which are intentional, designed, and structured allow you to achieve goals in the service of your mission which you had previously not thought possible.

Just what is collaboration?

We define collaboration in the basic terms of two or more parties who work together to create, develop, or deliver something. It's not unlike co-operation except that collaboration generally includes an aspect of co-ownership in an outcome while co-operation places more emphasis on the process itself.

What is the purpose of collaboration?

The collaborative organization seeks not merely to carry out its programs and services but to enhance them and ensure their success. It is open to change and recognizes that collaboration presents many opportunities, The Center has expertise in crafting collaboration toward the following ends:
  • To meet program goals.

  • To increase service quality to clients, members, stakeholders.

  • To serve more clients or to widen the geographic scope of service.

  • To add new services to existing clients and stakeholders.

  • To develop the human resources and other assets of the organization.

  • To ensure the survival of mission during times of change or upheaval.

  • To make a positive impact on the social and economic environment of the service area.

How do I establish a collaborative relationship or project?

One starts by being clear about the results one wants to achieve and by establishing specific benchmarks or indicators by which the results can be measured and evaluated. (The first step in a collaborative process is the same as that for any new project or program.) The next step is to know the assets and limitations of one's organization. Self knowledge (in an organization) is crucial in order to choose collaborators who bring complementary goals, skills, and services. Likewise, one must become more aware of other service providers in the field and to keep current with their expertise and outcomes. Lastly, the board must hear from its stakeholders. Which outcomes do they identify as a priority? Which of these outcomes can best be achieved by the organization alone and which can be better achieved through a collaborative enterprise?

Another calculation is that of economics. It's not enough for the executive staff to establish whether its organization can ramp up to expand its base or to provide an additional service; rather the staff must assess whether it can do so more efficiently than other organizations which may be better equipped or positioned for it. After all, while each party brings something to the table in a collaborative relationship, it's not always something which the other could not provide but rather something the other could not provide as readily, efficiently, cost-effectively, etc.

Finally, and most important, a successful collaboration is built on relationships, and successful relationships are built on a common (or compatible) mission supported by mutual goals and values. Absent a relationship with this foundation, a collaboration cannot be sustainable.

Which kind of collaboration would best suit my organization or agency?

Collaboration can take many forms. It may consist of no more than a pooling of administrative resources by two organizations or it may lie at the very heart of a project or program. Some organizations may create a time-limited collaboration in order to address a specific goal or task. Other organizations may seek to form permanent collaborative associations which achieve an ongoing synergy not otherwise possible.

Of course, depending on the end in view, some forms of collaboration will suit the needs and circumstances of an organization better than others; but whatever form you consider, the Center can help. We have expertise in the following forms and applications of collaboration:
  • Intra-organization Collaboration

  • Contract and Subcontract

  • Outsourcing

  • Strategic Partnership or Joint Powers Agreement

  • Strategic Alliance or Coalition

  • Professional Association

  • Acquisitions and Mergers

Intra-organization Collaboration

Description: In determining what form of collaboration to use, the first thing to understand is that it can take place as much within the organization as without. In all but the smallest nonprofits and NGOs, internal collaboration can be essential to achieving a successful outcome.

Benefits: Internal collaboration brings a synergy to an organization. The increase in communication and coordination all but eliminates redundancy. Effective policies and procedures cross-pollinate from one department to another, and an organization spends less time (and wastes fewer resources) in re-inventing the wheel. Internal collaboration also facilitates the assignment of personnel where they can be most effective in an organization, and it inculcates the ethos of systems thinking in the culture.

Pitfalls: There are no pitfalls to internal collaboration, in part because it's less a form of collaboration than an application of it. If there are any pitfalls here, it is in not practicing collaboration in the organization.

Having said that, this concept (of internal collaboration) raises a concern in some organizations — particularly those which have struggled to leave behind an institutionalized, top-down management structure in favor of semi-autonomous program areas with the agility to better serve their own clients. For such organizations, the specter of internal collaboration brings back memories of bureaucracy and the imposition of layers of administrative overhead upon each department. Other organizations, in contrast, may struggle with the opposite extreme in which individual programs have evolved to become too independent and which operate in a self-contained competitive structure unaccountable to the larger organization.

For the organizations and governments which grapple with finding the balance between these two extremes, collaboration might just be the answer. Its theory and practice respects the roles and autonomy of disparate divisions within an organization (or agencies within a government), and it seeks not to defeat that autonomy but rather to harness the power of it. Indeed, this is precisely what the collaborative model of service is all about.

Contract and Subcontract

Description: The simple contract is the most common form of collaboration and yet ironically it is often not thought of as an example of the art. But the contract is a useful tool for the organization which requires services that lie outside its current skill set or which are simply unavailable because existing resources are pre-allocated. Contracts are generally sought and crafted for specific projects or tasks and are defined by the function which the contractor serves.

Even though the contractor is a service provider to the contracting organization, and even if the contractor reports to the organization for work assignments, this relationship nonetheless can meet the test of collaboration insofar as it consists of two parties who work together toward a common goal.

Benefits: Contractors and subcontractors generally bring more direct control to the administering organization than do other forms of collaboration. They are well adapted either to short-term projects or long-term programs, and they provide an accountability without an imposition on organization payroll. They can be chosen and used on the basis of specific skills and knowledge which they bring to a shared interest.

Pitfalls: Contractors may be so focused on providing a needed skill that they place less emphasis on program goals overall. They may even not have sympathies with the organization mission in general. Thus the Center advises its clients to be mindful of this risk and whenever possible to contract with persons who not only have the requisite skills but who also share a passion for your mission. A shared mission is an essential ingredient of any successful collaboration, and it will serve to nourish and energize the working relationship and project.


Description: Outsourcing is a kind of contract in which an entire function or division of an organization is sold or or otherwise transferred to another party and then effectively leased back to the original organization. Once this is done, the two entities collaborate in a "service provider to customer model."

Outsourcing differs from a standard subcontract in two key ways. First, the services it comprises are generally ones which previously were provided for within the organization itself. Second, in an outsourcing model, an organization has no direct management responsibility over the outsourced functions.

Benefits: Outsourcing is predicated on the assumption that a service can be managed and delivered more effectively and efficiently by an independent company with specific expertise in the area in question. By offloading an entire functional area, an organization can then better marshal its resources and focus on its core competencies while at the same time not losing the service which key personnel had previously supplied.

Pitfalls: If an organization outsources part of its staff through a layoff, the practice is fraught with pitfalls — not least of which is the declining morale and increased stress of both the remaining staff as well as the outsourced staff who must now adjust to a culture of another organization while still providing a service to their former employer. If the process is not well designed, properly implemented, and humane, outsourced employees may feel unappreciated or even used, and this is likely to lead to reduced performance. As a result, collaboration through outsourcing is ill-advised with departments which are more program-driven and is instead better suited to administrative, technical, or other "mechanical" function.

Strategic Partnership (Joint Powers Agreement)

Description: A strategic partnership differs from a contractual relationship insofar as it (the partnership) may not involve a formal or legal structure, but it is generally more long-lived and is based less on a specific project than on the complementarity of programs and roles two or more parties bring to each other. (Specific agreements are usually documented in some form and agreed to by each party.) For example, one organization may serve its mission more through education while another may approach essentially the same mission through activism or legislation; and the two may seek to work jointly in those areas where both of these competencies can be maximized.

Benefits: Strategic partnerships, as a form of collaboration, pay great dividends to all organizations which participate in them. In fact, in some respects, it's not unlike intra-organization collaboration, albeit on a larger scale across organizations.The existing services of each are enriched and, more often than not, new services are born from the association. The stakeholders are the ultimate winners as this practice yields enhanced outcomes.

Pitfalls: There are no real structural pitfalls to this form of collaboration as such except for human failings which can sabotage the efforts. For example, if a competition for clients, work credit, and funding intrude in the relationship, an organization would be well advised to re-evaluate whether there is a true complementarity of culture and values among the parties involved or whether instead new people need to spearhead the efforts. Research has taught us about key environmental and structural indicators that can help this kind of collaboration be more successful. The Center uses best practices in the field to help its clients avoid these pitfalls and to reduce redundancy while collaborating in a strategic partnership in which both parties stay focused on working together to achieve their common goals.

Strategic Alliance or Coalition

Description: A strategic alliance or coalition distinguishes itself most conspicuously by the sheer number of its members. The impetus behind its formation is usually a goal which cannot be achieved by any single organization on its own or even by a strategic partnership. This form of collaboration differs from all the others insofar as its stakeholders are often the members themselves.

Benefits: What the strategic alliance offers is scope, power, and economy of scale. The most formidable challenges or program goals can be addressed by this form of collaboration, and as a result this model usually applies to long-term (or ongoing) goals. Strategic alliances often advance the state of the art in a profession and in so doing give a boost to all practitioners in the field.

Pitfalls: Because this form of collaboration is better suited to outcomes which require time to develop and bring about, they can be less measurable in the short term and accountability can be more problematic. Therefore it's crucial to establish concrete intermediate goals with quantifiable measures and then to monitor progress and compliance in order to ensure that the alliance fulfills its long-term mission.

The scale and number of participants in a strategic alliance requires a shift in how work is done, how communication takes place, and how decision-making is guided. The Center can help you design and support a successful alliance collaborative by avoiding its early pitfalls and by building into its infrastructure proactive processes and policies that anticipate and ensure success.

Professional Association

Description: The professional association is a collaborative model for the development of individual practitioners and the advancement of the field to which they belong. It can develop an academic foundation for the field as well as provide a professional certification for its members. It can act also as a pool of specialized talent for those organizations without the resources of these experts.

Benefits: Organizations which encourage (or fund) staff membership in professional associations will be rewarded with loyal employees who stay current with the state of the art and with best practices and who will bring that back to nourish the organization itself.

Pitfalls: Professional associations are often staffed by members of the profession itself; and consequently the role of serving members (and not competing with them) must be clear. In addition, the cost of membership can be high and recent years have seen a decline in the membership and revenue of national member associations. There are, however, some great success stories and the Center can help you identify and develop effective strategies to strengthen your association or help you get the most from the associations to which you belong.

Acquisitions and Mergers

Description: Under ideal circumstances, a merger occurs after a strategic partnership has been field tested and found to be so successful that two or more organizations seek to formalize the partnership within the organization structure itself. Often when this takes place there is a consolidation of administration and technical support while — depending on the need — the programs and divisions of the two original organizations can remain essentially intact.

For example, where one organization focuses on research and the other more on direct service, these two orientations can continue to survive in the newly merged organization, with each nourishing (and benefiting from) the other. In this way a merger does not signal the end of collaboration but only the transformation of it from one form to another, from a strategic partnership to intra-organization collaboration in which the cross-fertilization of ideas and strengths continue in the service of a new, unified, and shared vision and culture..

Benefits: Under ideal conditions — where the cultures and mission of two organizations are complementary (which are prerequisites for a successful merger to begin with) — this has all the benefits of a strategic partnership plus a streamlining of administration with the potential of cost savings, increased funding, and a stronger position and leverage. And by bringing the collaboration completely within a single organization structure, it can be better managed and supported.

Pitfalls: The benefits of this form of collaboration depend on the pillars on which the merger rests. If a merger is coerced by economic hardship, if it takes place between two unequal organizations, or if it is an act of desperation by a board of directors at a loss to know what else to do, the prospects for success are poor. Indeed, in such an event, one organization could lose its identity to the other and its mission could be subsumed or retired. While this might not completely defeat the purpose of a merger, it is a risk that must be acknowledged and addressed during the negotiations. This is why the Center recommends a strategic partnership as a first step in the process. If joint work on a few projects is positive, then this augurs well for moving to the next step.