By Patrick Hart
Late 2017 and early 2018 have featured a bumper crop of research emphasizing the importance of collaboration and coordination among community-based nonprofits. Recent research from MDRC, the Center for Promise, and the RAND Corporation all provide guidance about promising strategies for improving the effectiveness of partnerships between community-based organizations.
All of the initiatives studied in these reports start from a simple premise: coordination is better than silos! And indeed, it is hard to resist the intuitive logic here—a comprehensive approach to addressing community challenges seems better than a fragmented one. One thing that comes out of all these reports, though, is that collaboration is not easy. In fact, it is quite easy for a collaborative endeavor to struggle. RAND’s report on Connections to Care notes the challenges of uncertain roles for different provider partners in an initiative, the Center for Promise report notes that the Center could not necessarily identify true comprehensive partnerships in many sectors, and the MDRC report discussed some of the challenges that community collaborations face in generating connectivity and trust between organizational partners.
None of this is meant to denigrate the initiatives mentioned in these reports—on the contrary, the studies all speak to why collaboration is critical, and they all detail strategies that partners are using to overcome these challenges. However, these documents and many others show how intricate and painstaking implementing partnerships is in practice, and how substantial support is needed for partnership-building. At ISLG, we hope to add to this growing body of knowledge about collaboration as we participate in and support various types of partnerships: As part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, we work several other organizations that are providing technical assistance to criminal justice stakeholders in various agencies in 20 sites across the country. As part of the Criminal Justice Investment Initiative, we provide technical assistance to the Manhattan DA’s Office and provide guidance and oversight to more than 50 grantee organizations. And we’re working closely with CUNY staff and leadership across six areas within the university—human resources, procurement, finance, IT, enrollment management, and facilities & capital—to identify and help implement priority, best practice, and cost efficient initiatives over the next four fiscal years.
The partnerships and collaborations we are engaged in take different forms and are at various phases. We also play various roles, depending on the project, yet some overarching lessons are apparent:
- Make sure ALL relevant staff members are clear from the start about their role in the partnership process. When organizations respond to requests for proposals and propose a partnership, too often, the partnership strategy has been formed primarily by high-level staff members such as executive directors or development directors. The staff members who will actually implement the partnership (program directors and line staff) are often not part of these initial discussions, and then they are asked by their leadership to implement a partnership strategy that may not reflect the organizational realities on the ground. Organizations building partnerships should have program level staff members present and involved from the beginning to support planning and implementing these partnerships.
- Even within the same partnership structure, partners may not all operate in the same way—and that’s ok. For a lead organization managing multiple partners, it may be tempting (and seemingly easier) to structure each partnership relationship in an almost identical way, in terms of everything from the way referrals are made, to reporting structure, to frequency of meetings. What we have seen, however, is that an essential part of a good partnership is an understanding and respect for what partners are actually doing on the ground and what they bring to the partnership. That may mean, for instance, understanding that not all partners need to be in every meeting. We have encountered examples of partners that provide one specific service and do it very well, but that do not have the staff members or time to be able to be at regular planning meetings. On the other hand, there are partner providers that want to be actively involved in setting the direction for the overall partnership or collaboration, and that can be an asset as well. Every nonprofit has its own internal culture, values, and procedures, and these can also lead to different types of organizational behavior within partnerships. The key for organizations managing partnerships is to be flexible and understanding of the different profiles of their partner providers.
- Don’t underestimate the challenge of gathering data from multiple partners. Data collection and performance measurement play more of a role than ever in grantmaking and grants oversight from both public and private grantmakers. While that is not news at this point, it is still easy for organizations leading partnerships to underestimate the amount of time and resources that will be needed to build a coordinated data delivery system among partners. These systems can take different forms—all partners logged into a shared data management system , one lead partner collecting aggregate data manually from others, etc. —but they will always take time and resources and create unexpected complications at different points. Some partnerships require case-level information sharing between organizations, and if that’s the case, that adds an additional layer of trust-building among partners that needs to happen. Organizations embarking on partnerships should keep all of this in mind as they map out their partnership plans.
These lessons are just a few examples of some of the challenges and decisions that partnerships may face. At the same time, there is a reason for so much interest in partnerships and coordination in the social sector right now: in a sector that has too often been defined by siloes and overly rigid rules and regulations, partnerships represent an opportunity for creative program implementation that more effectively addresses the needs of families and communities. The lessons we’re learning, along with all the high-quality research continuing to emerge about best practices for partnerships, can help provide a roadmap towards better program implementation and better outcomes for communities.