Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Whose Job is it to Partner?

In our sustainability model one of the questions we encourage board and staff to ask is: “Who are the top five existing or potential partners who can help make our mission work?” I have enjoyed hearing the answers from board and staff because they vary greatly between the two and because the insights often inspire relationships to be created or strengthened. But there are two new questions we also need to be asking: “who are the top five existing or potential partners that can help make our community stronger? And what is our role in that work?

Our premise has always been that you can’t achieve mission by yourself, but thinking only about mission is getting us stuck. We also have to focus on the greater cause so we think outside the interests of our sub-sector, our programs, our siloed funding, and instead start thinking about that cause and the systems in which we operate. As a nonprofit board and staff leader, we have a responsibility to see our connections and work together to strengthen the communities we serve.

Recently I heard David Peter Stroh who wrote “Systems Thinking for Social Change” say: “If you don’t know how you are part of the problem than you absolutely can’t be part of the solution.” I am letting that soak in for a long time. Each one of our organizations, regardless of how long or how big we are, must be willing to ask that question: “How are we part of the problem?” In that answer likely lays a whole new layer of questions that could set us up for better partnerships and true collaborations.

I am distinguishing true collaboration as the act of coming together not just because you have to, but because you want to in order to achieve mission or have a deeper impact on solving a problem, addressing an issue or cause, or changing an unjust or broken system. There are many forces at work that get us to “have to” including funder requirements. However, the one we face right now is our new economic reality, which also adds an additional urgency to this call to action. A “want to” may also lie in this economy, and that is knowing that cutting the state budget doesn’t reduce the needs in our communities, it only makes solving the challenges more complex. This complexity in answering our community needs related to issues like better health and wellness, or quality education, or artistic expression can never be solved by a single organization. And now we are all learning that they can’t be solved by staying in our own sub-sectors. Complex challenges require us to get out of our silos and find solutions together. We see glimmers of this kind of collaboration every day. You see and know it, too. But how do more of us do it – or do more of it? Whose job is it to start the conversation or extend the invitation? Whose job is it is to join the team?

Let’s start to answer these questions by beginning with what we know. We know there are gaps in the system, and that the ways we divide ourselves into categories of services, or individual organizations, along with the lack of diversity in our voices, perpetuate many of these gaps. We know there is duplication. The dominant assumption is that existing nonprofits, and those that are the biggest of us, are the most effective in meeting community needs. This assumption generally precedes a determination that any new ideas about working better together, or the inclusion of new organizations that want to play in the sandbox, are not worthy of exploration. Counter this with the strong sentiment we hear that the reason to start something new (like a collaborative approach) is that the existing way is broken, myopic, or so siloed that it is now part of the problem, rather than a path to a community solution.

Hear me clearly, I am not suggesting that we encourage forming a lot of new organizations, in fact we have many strategies at Foraker to help new ideas incubate and connect to existing organizations. I am saying that in these efforts it is clear that new ideas, voices, and energy can bring us all a little bit closer to some truth whether or not they create something new.

If we follow the thinking that the existing, more substantial organization should lead the way into collaboration, than we have to make another assumption – that its leaders are prepared to do it. Prepared means more than having the time and resilience to do it, it means that they have open minds and open doors for a new idea to unfold. Fortunately, in Alaska we benefit from the insight and experience of many of our larger organizations who do just this. We can also think of this as having trust, adaptability, and a willingness to take a risk based on collective ideas, rather than just putting forward one idea and looking for others to agree. In many ways, the responses we often hear when a new idea comes into an existing space is some combination of “no” and “show me the money.” Many of these responses are deeply rooted not solely in the leadership but the leader’s defense of current grant funding, which prevents flexibility and creativity, and encourages competition rather than collaboration.

What happens when the conservation starts with “no” is a cascade of effects that create a “no win” cycle. This cycle starts with the organization that isn’t open to a new idea, a better way, or a collaborative response. Then one of two things may happen – the individual organizations go back to business as usual or a new organization is formed that has a new idea about how to solve the problem in parallel – not in partnership – with the organizations that already exist. The result in both cases can lead to a poor use of resources both human and financial, lessen the strength of our relationships, and lessen our ability to solve the larger problem or create even more benefits.

There is no doubt that new ideas and relationships are hard to integrate. And for every ten or so organizations that start a conversation, one or two usually are willing to be humble and hear how the path they have laid out doesn’t work as well as they thought – that barriers exist, along with misunderstanding and misdirection. They in turn will listen and ask a set of bigger questions about how their mission is impacting the larger system they operate in and how new approaches they hadn’t thought of yet might make the world just a little better and get the organization a little closer to systemic advances and/or solutions. This is a new cycle we could perfect together.

Let’s now consider that the larger organizations open the door but no willing partner walks in. What if the smaller organizations or the new organization or the lead organizer with the new and undoubtly unique idea isn’t interested in a relationship? Then what? What is their responsibility to engage? What are our expectations and assumptions about their willingness or lack of desire to partner?

We see both sides of this every day – the established organization that either isn’t interested or doesn’t know how to partner, or is interested but can’t find the right partners, along with those organizations or founders with new ideas who want to partner but can’t find a date or are completely uninterested in the established ways of doing the work. Then what happens? One result is that the established organizations only play with other established groups and potentially lose the new voice, the innovative idea, or the path to a more systemic way to bring about change. Another is that the start-up ideas or organizations stay that way for too long. Another is that the effort has too much “have to” and not enough “want to,” so that no matter who shows up it’s difficult to move forward. Either way, greater good is less in reach for all of us.

Extending or accepting the invitation to collaborate is a big step for any organization of any size and age. It is slow and creative work. As you read this, are you thinking about another organization or the one you are connected to? Are you thinking: “Well that sounds nice, I sure wish that other organization would collaborate better.” Or are you thinking about the next time your organization will accept or extend the invitation? Will you lead with flexibility and trust? Will you follow? It’s not about whether your organization is new or old. It’s not about big or small. It’s about asking questions and listening to answers that come from new or different voices rather than digging deeper into a defensive position. It’s about knowing who we are as organizations so we can ask where we truly want to go. It’s about bringing our strength and resources to the table not our limitations and fear. It’s about taking the first step.

Does your organization need help taking the first step or any other step in forming a successful partnership? Foraker has a full range of services to help you with your collaborative efforts. Give us a call.