The Soft Underbelly of Nonprofit Collaboration Pt. 1

Everybody is talking about how important it is for organizations to work together. Few are addressing the potential pitfalls and vulnerabilities of partnership.

This blog was first posted on Guidestar Blog by Valerie F. Leonard on May 2, 2019.

It seems like everybody is talking about how important it is for organizations to work together. Foundations, who are seeing a growing demand for their resources but want to see a greater impact for their donations, encourage organizations to work collaboratively around key issue areas, geography, and target groups. Elected officials like to see stakeholders come together to tackle problems that plague the community. After all, “it takes a village to raise a child,” and probably several villages to save the world. Organizations work collaboratively to share the workload, strengthen organizational capacity, share lessons learned, and create synergies around new and existing programs.

What we don’t talk about so much are the potential pitfalls and vulnerabilities of partnership. I like to call these the soft underbelly of collaboration. They include such things as inequitable compensation and visibility for collaborators in proportion to their contributions; financial risks exceeding the potential rewards; broken relationships; and lack of accountability, to name only a few. Every collaboration is different, and each one carries its own sets of issues and risks.

Like marriage, collaborations are not to be entered into unadvisedly. For every successful collaboration of which I’ve been a part, I can name several more that failed for one reason or another. Through the good, the bad, and the ugly, I have learned valuable lessons, and I’d like to share some of them with you. 

  1. Understand your self-interests. Most people who work in community development and nonprofit management are mission driven and get genuine satisfaction from making the world a better place. That does not negate other needs and desires you might have, such as being valued as a leader or team player, being able to participate in the financial value derived from your work, or wanting to establish relationships with people who can advance your cause or career. The list goes on. Before entering any partnership or recruiting others to work with you on an initiative you are thinking about, make sure you understand your motivations, your needs, how your needs will be met, and what you will do if they are not met. I also recommend that you talk to a lawyer to get a sense for what your involvement in the collaboration could mean from a legal standpoint.
  1. Understand your worth. Although, theoretically, everyone in the collaboration is on the same team, the value of everyone’s contributions may not be the same. There are some partners who work while others sleep, in both the literal and figurative senses. Other partners may lend their names to a project, have sketchy attendance, and do just enough work to keep from being kicked out of the project. It’s important to have very candid conversations about your workload, the value of your contributions, and potential compensation should the collaborative start to generate income. These discussions need to start as soon as possible during the formation of the partnership. Do not proceed if you feel your contributions will not be valued or appreciated by other members of the collaboration.
  1. Understand the self-interests, value, and motivations of everyone else you’re considering adding to your team. After you have determined your self-interests, motivation, and worth, you need to do the same for everyone with whom you would like to be involved in the collaboration. Have candid conversations regarding your mutual self-interests and try to come up with triple-wins—that is, solutions that work for you and your organization, your collaborative partners, and the community. Before you negotiate, know what your own limitations and deal-breakers are.
  1. Don’t let funding proposals be the only factor that determines the terms and scope of your collaboration. Funders often encourage partnership among several organizations as a consideration for being funded and ask prospective grantees to provide a memorandum of understanding as evidence of collaboration. As a result, it is not uncommon for grant proposals to be the driving force for collaborations involving nonprofits. I jokingly call partnerships developed in this manner “nonprofit shotgun marriages.” Although the partners may or may not be “in love,” so to speak, there is a very good chance that their working relationships have not been tested, with time to get to know each other better and weather storms. They will find out how compatible they are as partners very soon after the grant agreement is signed and the funding starts to flow.

In an ideal world, organizations should develop a collaboration first, in the absence of any funding. I say this because money, self-interest, and—sadly—greed often brings out negative dynamics that may not be apparent before funding. It is best to determine how partners will be compensated before any money flows into the collaboration—a time when collaborating partners, presumably, still have positive relationships with one another. If your collaboration is funded before a true meeting of the minds has been established in writing, the group leaves itself open for conflicts and the potential for some partners to take unfair financial and political advantage of the situation.

After collaborating partners solidify the terms and conditions under which they will work, they should seek funding sources that are in alignment with what they are trying to achieve. This will take significantly longer than hammering out an agreement under the time pressures of meeting a proposal deadline. It significantly increases, however, the chances of the collaboration surviving for the long haul.

Valerie F. Leonard is the host of Nonprofit Utopia, a community for emerging nonprofit leaders. She is an expert in community and organizational development and host of the Nonprofit Utopia podcast. Valerie is the former founding executive director of a neighborhood grant-making organization and played an integral role in the framing of a comprehensive planning process for a changing community on Chicago’s West Side.


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