Organizations may seem to be cooperating, but are they truly collaborating?


June 28, 1993|By LESTER A. PICKER

A buzzword among nonprofit organizations lately seems to be "collaboration."

Funding sources, eager to see their charitable dollars stretch further in today's very tight economy, are encouraging -- even forcing -- nonprofits to work closely together to meet some social service needs in their communities. The question is whether these efforts are truly collaborative.

In increasing numbers, nonprofits are certainly cooperating in attacking deep-seated social problems. In other cases, they may go further and coordinate their efforts. But true collaboration seems to be lacking.

I had just made a presentation to a group of nonprofit executives on this topic, when a nifty little reference on collaboration crossed my desk. Once again, the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation of St. Paul, Minn., has scored a bull's eye by providing a service of enormous value to the nonprofit community.

First a word about the Wilder Foundation, which few people out East seem to know about. Established more than 80 years ago, and with assets of more than $200 million, the foundation is one of the oldest and largest in the United States.

The Wilder Foundation has a growing reputation for excellence among the philanthropic community.

While technically a public charity, Wilder acts as an operating foundation. That means, it uses the interest on its corpus to provide direct services primarily to the community of St. Paul. Its more than 1,300 employees operate nursing homes, counsel youth at risk, run summer camps for inner-city youth and provide a host of other social services to people in need.

Wilder also operates the Wilder Research Center, which ferrets out information about effective practices that benefit nonprofit organizations.

The research center then collaborates with the Services to Organizations division in publishing the findings for use by other charities. I have previously reviewed their excellent marketing workbook in this column.

OC "Collaboration: What Makes It Work" is a small, but very useful

publication for those nonprofits seeking to understand what successful collaboration entails. Wilder researchers examined every major study conducted on collaborative efforts and gleaned 18 that met their criteria and that provide the basis for lTC this report.

An immediate contribution to understanding collaborative ventures is the authors' definition of collaboration, as opposed to cooperation or coordination.

Collaboration entails major commitments from each partner in order to be successful. Joint goals must be agreed upon. A new, joint mission must be developed that is consistent with each of the individual organizational missions. Accountability systems must be developed to match assigned responsibilities. Resources and rewards must be shared.

Few organizations today truly collaborate, to the detriment of the end users of the charities' services. All too often, well-meaning attempts to collaborate end up as coordination of services or simple agreements to cooperate. Two or three agencies then settle for sharing information or referrals.

Much too often, the driving mechanism for this deterioration of vision is the perceived threat each organization sees to its institutional survival. Collaboration means, by definition, shared decision-making and a willingness to undertake a much higher level of risk than under run-of-the-mill cooperative agreements.

The Wilder report categorizes collaboration success factors into six major categories: environment, membership, process/structure, communications, purpose and resources.

Each category is then examined for the factors that researchers have determined are critical for achieving success.

As an example, the environment category lists three factors critical for success.

The first is that there be a history of cooperation in the community which paves the way and allows people to trust in the collaborative process.

Second, the collaboration partners are seen as leaders in their respective fields. Finally, the political and social climate needs to be favorable toward such ventures.

The Wilder collaboration report is the forerunner to one of their typically excellent workbooks that will be available this fall. The report is $13.95, including postage, and is available from: Ms. Sharon Kunau, A. H. Wilder Foundation/M SS, 919 Lafond Ave., St. Paul, Minn. 55104.

(Next week we'll examine some of the major findings of thWilder report and their implications for the nonprofit community.)

(Lester A. Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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