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Making Decisions or Making Nice?

“Well, it’s basically a nice group of folks who want to sit around, chat, and have coffee.”

While it may sound a bit harsh, this is how a colleague recently characterized a group of nonprofit leaders who have been engaged in conversations to explore partnership opportunities. Underlying this comment are questions that may be key to the success of any strategic relationship: Why are you engaged in these conversations? Does avoiding a bold and creative solution, with its attendant risk, expose you to even greater risks? We address the first question here, and the second in a later post.

As nonprofit collaboration has gone mainstream and the model of working together has expanded from two-party agreements to include multiple organizations seeking common ground, its potential has in many cases grown…but not in all.

Across the sector, collaboration is too readily viewed as a virtue in itself, rather than as a means to an end — in fact, a strategy. Nonprofits, engaging in dialogues to explore potential partnerships, are in some ways doing what is expected of them, responding to the prevailing idea that any collaboration is by definition a good thing. But what about when these conversations spin out for many months, focusing on only marginal changes to an existing relationship, with no firm commitments made?

We have worked with a number of groups of organizations seeking assistance in identifying collaborative opportunities. Usually, there is no overt funder pressure or acute crisis involved, so the benefit is that the potential partners can approach collaboration in a proactive way, rather than being compelled to it. The problem is that an alliance is then seen as “nice,” but not “necessary,” and the tendency is for the conversation to focus on low-risk collaborative ventures where none of the organizations has any real skin in the game and there is little hope or expectation of real impact.

Granted, we often find that successful mergers and other partnerships have been built on a history of working together in small ways, as organizations develop mutual trust incrementally over time. But you still need to start somewhere, and that means putting down the coffee cups and taking the plunge.

So what are some of the barriers to getting past just making nice and instead making a decision to partner? And how can nonprofit leaders recognize and overcome these obstacles?

Nonprofit culture is conflict-averse. Real collaboration is built on relationships, and those take work. There should be some discomfort as organizations struggle to align their goals, values, and resources to pursue them. This is not to say that meetings should be contentious or uncivil, but things may “get real” if leaders are willing (as they need to be) to challenge one another and hold themselves accountable. It requires both skill and respect for leaders to engage with conflict in a constructive way in service of a strategic partnership.

Vision is lacking. Too often, potential partners focus on structure and look to consultants to provide a menu of options from which to choose. This is a recipe for…well…a pretty bland meal. The likelihood of success — development of a relationship that will have greater impact than the partners could have individually — is significantly enhanced if there is clarity about what they hope to achieve. Through a shared understanding of the “why” of a potential partnership, the parties can more creatively approach the “how.” Focusing on the mission can free the potential partners to create a solution designed to achieve this vision, rather than a partnership just for the sake of partnership.

Collaboration is viewed as all-or-nothing. The greater number of nonprofits that come together to explore collaborative options, the higher the odds that they will never all be on the same page at the same time. As much as it might be desired to bring everyone along, an organization that seems to be dragging its feet on a commitment all the other shave agreed to should be allowed (or asked) to simply opt out, with no judgment or blame. It may be that only a subset of the group is interested in a particular opportunity at a given time. Act on the willingness that is there to do something together instead of waiting for the one-size-fits-all solution that may never emerge.

Change is hard. As dedicated as nonprofits may be to creating change (in their communities, in society, in client outcomes, etc.), it is just as hard for them as for any other organization to change themselves. Some forms of partnership, like a merger, require more change than others, but all collaboration demands some type of adaptation, compromise, or different way of working. Organizations and leaders that are not willing to change are really not ready for collaboration. It is important to focus on the change you are trying to make together in order to see the hard work of organizational change as being worthwhile and serving a larger mission.

Failure is not seen as an option. Responsible to so many different stakeholders, nonprofits have a narrow margin for error. this can inhibit risk tolerance and, in turn, innovative strategy. Nonprofit leaders may be reluctant to take the first step toward a partnership for fear of what comes next. But organizations can plan for this by setting themselves up for success. Rather than simply focusing on getting to the agreement of a partnership, they might invest in board development to create a solid foundation for moving forward or create a strategic or business plan to guide and bring greater confidence to their next steps.

Does any of this sound familiar? Share your comments below, and look for our follow-up post in the coming weeks for a closer look at how to work through the fear of risk and make bold decisions with greater confidence.

This post is a collaboration between Scott Cotenoff and Melissa Mendes Campos.

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