We often talk about the essential elements of forming a strong nonprofit partnership: shared values and vision, clarity of purpose, open communication and trust-building, etc. But what about the important work of sustaining a collaborative relationship over time?
When a collaborative effort is launched, there’s typically a lot of excitement about the new venture. There may even be dedicated funding or other resources to help get the collaboration off the ground. But what about a year or two down the road, once the newness has worn off?
A collaboration at this later stage of development faces challenges a bit different from those it overcame to first establish itself. Turnover among the individuals leading the effort, disappointment in perhaps not meeting its initial goals, taking on too much or losing focus, and garden-variety burnout can all take a toll. Meanwhile, the original funder may seek to dial back its investment in hopes that the work can attract broader support or become more self-sustaining. All these can threaten to derail a collaboration.
Although there is no simple recipe or formula for sustaining collaborations over time, we can point to six strategies to lend them greater resilience and staying power.
1. Formalize. Make it “official” by documenting mutual commitments, such as those regarding the collaboration’s purpose, structure, values, policies, decision making processes, etc.
2. Lead. Plan for leadership turnover. Decide how you will replace members who leave. As an organization participating in a collaboration, keep collaborative skills in mind as you recruit and hire new staff for key positions. Within the collaborative, develop shared leadership by giving all members leadership opportunities, such as by rotating responsibilities for meeting facilitation and other key tasks.
3. Measure. Make data work for you and track progress toward key outcomes. The ability to measure success is critical to maintaining your momentum as well as in attracting resources and support from others to sustain the work.
4. Broaden. Cultivate broader involvement beyond the core group of individuals. Consider whether the collaboration might benefit from expanding involvement to more levels of the organization, such as senior management, line staff, etc.
5. Learn. Continually learn from what you’re doing. Acknowledge successes as well as shortfalls, and adjust as needed. Look at the work of other collaboratives and what you can learn from one another.
6. Deepen. Build on your experience to keep deepening your understanding of the issue(s) you’re addressing. Document lessons learned to prepare for outreach to new supporters and funders. Pay attention to needs or opportunities that emerge beyond those you’ve already planned for, and determine their implications for your work. Consider different ways of funding your activities that you may not have been ready for or had access to when you first began (for example, has your success opened up the possibility of an earned income model, or of adding new partners with additional resources to bring to bear, etc.?).
All of these strategies contribute toward institutionalizing the collaboration within the organizations involved, beyond the initial group of individuals responsible for its early formation. This is key to sustaining momentum over time and continuing to deliver on the benefits of collaboration.