I am often asked: Why is it important to learn how to collaborate with other nonprofits? My responses often have to do with the microeconomic changes that influence our sector, such as the pressure to raise unrestricted funding to pay for back office services. But recently I saw a very interesting podcast on Ted.com given by Joseph Nye, a historian and diplomat who made me see the answer to this question in a new way.

Nye explained that power—the ability to accomplish your goals—is changing in the 21st century. Most nonprofits develop power unilaterally, what Nye might call, “hard power.” But there is another type of power, “soft power,” which is getting others to do what you want through persuasion. Nye says that it’s soft power which is the emerging power in the 21st century.  There are many problems that are outside the control of individual countries: climate change, pandemics, etc., and that the only way to deal with these issues is through cooperation among nations.  The same is true in the nonprofit sector where we often are struggling with failing state governments, recessions, and complex social problems.  Nye advised that we have to stop thinking of power as a “zero sum game,” where I win and you lose, or vice versa. Today, power could be also be a positive sum game: I gain and therefore you gain as well.  Increasingly this is the way we want to think about power in the 21st century in the nonprofit sector.

How can we work together in the nonprofit sector to produce results that we can all benefit from? One way is through exercising soft power by creating alliances, partnerships, and mergers between organizations as a strategy to address those chaotic issues that are beyond any single organization’s control. Nye explains that by exercising both soft and hard power, one creates “smart power,” the ability to move back and forth between these two strategies. In the 21st century, let’s vow to exercise smart power in the nonprofit sector in order to deliver on our nonprofit missions.