In the early months of the economic downturn, many organizations considered the idea of collaboration. Many of our colleagues were open to the idea of strategic alliances ranging from shared back-office operations to full-blown mergers.
Yet in the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s 2010 survey of nonprofit groups, only 1 percent of the organizations actually reported having merged with another one. One conclusion is that it appears that the urgency for organizations to align themselves strategically has waned, although foundation funding to nonprofits continues to decline or disappear completely.
Anecdotally, in the communities I work with, collaborations have been minimal, if they exist at all. Perhaps organizations are waiting for foundation funding streams to reappear to pre-recession levels, negating the need for such collaboration. The truth of the matter is, funding as we knew it will not return to its glorious past. Organizations that do not seek to work closely with other groups only exacerbate the fragmented service-delivery system that prevents us from solving problems in our communities.
The lack of nonprofit strategic collaboration is not necessarily the fault of nonprofit leaders; they are occupied with other pressing matters. These leaders are managing organizations with diminishing resources, increased demand for services, and an understandable desire to serve as many people as possible.
One leader of an AIDS-serving organization in Atlanta told me, “We cannot turn away a client that comes to us because they have nowhere else to go.”
Nonprofit leaders are wired to get things done and are not necessarily focused on identifying new ways to structure their organizations to improve service delivery. This requires a different set of skills and the luxury of time for reflection and planning.
Further, as a foundation colleague told me, “many organization leaders have been trained to differentiate themselves from peer organizations as they compete for foundation funding.”
It would require a departure from the past if nonprofit managers should now view their peers as partners rather than competition.
The funding community can encourage changed behavior on this front. How many times has a nonprofit leader had to articulate her organization’s uniqueness to a program officer during the 60-minute update meeting, where an invitation to apply for a grant is the goal? This should stop.
Perhaps foundation program staff members, who know their grantees and communities intimately, should begin identifying and sharing what they observe as promising possible partnerships among nonprofits. This may be considered risky by some as foundation staff members resist “directing” organizations. However, with economic uncertainty here for a long time, if not now, then when? And if not from foundations, then where?
We need conversation starters and skilled intermediaries to help organizations recognize and realize new possibilities.
Nonprofit leaders also need a safe space and time to engage peer organizations in a new way.
Finally, we need capital to move organizations from conversation to execution. To our knowledge, there are three funds—created either by shared pools of foundation money or by single foundations—that assist organizations with the capital necessary to align strategically. It is clear that we need more than three funds if nonprofit organizations are going to get serious about reducing inefficiency and producing strong results.