Collaboration Tips for 800-Pound Gorillas

One of the more common challenges in building strong nonprofit partnerships comes when bringing one or more small or modest-sized organizations together with a very large organization. The power differential that exists among the partners can be a significant barrier to building the level of trust needed for real collaboration to develop. Because it is typically the large organization that is seen as the “800-pound gorilla,” likely to upset the negotiation table by throwing their weight around, it is important for the larger or more powerful nonprofit in a collaboration to think small in order to be the “bigger” partner.

Even the Playing Field

For example, in our work with eight Habitat for Humanity affiliates in North Carolina, the partnership included some organizations that built only 2-3 houses each year and others that were building upwards of 40-50. Had the larger affiliates used their greater capacity as justification for demanding greater power in the collaboration, a partnership would not have been successful. Instead, the larger organizations were intentional about helping to ensure that all partners were equal participants and honoring the unique value that each brought to the table. As a result of this commitment to being a good partner, the collaboration chose an initial focus for the collaboration that could benefit all and could be effectively implemented with a strong foundation of mutual trust.

Share Control

Similarly, in a merger among HIV/AIDS organizations in Colorado, one of the potential partners was larger than the other three combined. When putting together the governing board for the merged organization, the largest organization could have demanded board representation proportional to its pre-merger size, ensuring that it would maintain a majority voice in decision-making. Instead, it opted to request only one more board member than each of the other three partners, bringing only 3 board members to the new organization and effectively sharing control. This not only went a long way toward establishing a sense of trust among the partners and smoothing the merger process, it created a board environment that would not just be “more of the same” but that offered room to truly think differently about co-creating the organization’s future.

Be Humble

The largest organization at the table has an important role to play in ensuring the collaboration unfolds as a partnership of equals, but such actions should not be viewed as magnanimous or altruistic. Creating an even playing field and sharing control does not just benefit the smaller partner organizations, but results in a shared benefit. Remember that you, too, stand to gain from the collaboration. We have seen partnerships where it is the smaller of the organizations that brings the innovative program, the technical or clinical capacity, or the valuable public contract that makes the collaboration greater than the sum of its parts. Never underestimate the potential that a partner brings, regardless of their relative size — and always be ready to learn something new from every organization at the table.

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