Advancing the Art of Collaboration
Advancing the Art of Collaboration
This series, produced in partnership with BBB's, calls on the social sector to embody a new and pioneering collaborative spirit based in trust so that it can reach broader audiences, share the risk involved in experimentation, and accomplish more than any single organization could do alone.

Each year, the Maryland Food Bank provides more than 41 million meals to people in need. Often, those meals come from traditional sources such as financial contributions, and donations of canned goods, boxes of pasta, and bags of rice collected from generous families through food drives and church donation boxes. But a large portion of the organization’s food also comes from an unexpected source: prison inmates.

The food bank collaborates with Maryland nonprofits and about 50 local farms to send pre-release inmates into the field to glean roughly 800,000 pounds of produce for hungry families. This effort annually provides 650,000 meals, or more than 10 percent of the food bank’s meals.

While the hungry in Maryland are the prime beneficiaries, the program is as much an opportunity for the prisoners as it is for the food bank. “This program works because it helps provide opportunities for pre-release inmates to integrate back into society,” says Carmen Del Guercio, the Maryland Food Bank’s chief executive. “They are able to reengage with the community outside of those prison walls. They get to interact with other people—and they get to do something that benefits the community.”

The effort is part of a growing trend toward greater collaboration between nonprofits and other partners. At a time when nonprofits are getting squeezed by government budget cuts and facing increased need among those they serve, many groups are realizing that they cannot achieve their missions without building new alliances. And, quite often, they find these partners in unexpected places.

Nonprofits feel the pressure

This spring, BBB’s brought together leaders from two-dozen nonprofits for the first in a series of roundtable discussions focused on collaboration experiences. These initial discussions drew a diverse cross-section of leaders from both large US organizations such as Feeding America and Meals on Wheels, and smaller, community nonprofits such as the anti-poverty organization A Wider Circle.

The conversations yielded some interesting insights—most notably that nonprofits, large and small, are facing increased pressure to deliver on their missions in creative ways. This pressure is coming not only from government cutbacks and mounting needs, but also from technology—which participants said is pushing many nonprofits to adapt their fundraising tactics, refine their communications and marketing strategies, and confront increasing cybersecurity challenges.

Taken together, these forces are prompting many organizations to consider creative approaches to their work, often through collaboration with other groups. Yet their approaches to collaboration often differ from what we usually think about when we discuss nonprofit partnerships. Interestingly, many of the most successful collaborations have been between groups working on very different missions, or between nonprofits and groups outside the nonprofit field.

Unlikely alliances

A good example of this is Meals on Wheels America, which is partnering with Eisai, a pharmaceutical company, to deliver meals to cancer patients discharged from the hospital to recover at home. “This is a for-profit entity that has no skin in the game, other than wanting to do something philanthropic,” says Ellie Hollander, Meals on Wheels America’s chief executive. “They have been a great partner, and they’re even offering employees the opportunity to volunteer to deliver the meals.”

Meanwhile, three other organizations—DonorsChoose, GlobalGiving, and Kiva—have agreed to work with the Harvard Business School and the John Templeton Foundation to conduct A/B testing on fundraising pages to determine whether certain online giving incentives are more effective than others. This research will help all three nonprofits improve their online fundraising techniques, and will be shared publicly with the hope of helping other nonprofits achieve better fundraising results.

These three nonprofits are also part of a larger cohort that includes charity: water and others that meet regularly to share best practices and counsel each other through challenges. “Sharing has allowed us to really scale faster,” says GlobalGiving Chief Product Officer Kevin Conroy. “Our organizations all exist to make the world a better place. If we’re able to help each other get there faster, we’re all able to achieve the ‘meta’ mission.”

Increasing collaboration opportunities

But while groups like the Maryland Food Bank and GlobalGiving have made collaboration a central part of their cultures, for many nonprofits, collaborations remain one-off arrangements that happen almost by chance. Organizations tend to collaborate mostly with groups they have an existing relationship with or when an opportunity is brought to them. “We’re seeing a number of really innovative and impactful collaborations,” said Art Taylor, president and CEO of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance. “But these collaborations happen almost by serendipity. We need to change that and find ways to make collaboration more deliberate.”

An important part of achieving this goal is developing toolkits and sharing best practices to help nonprofits effectively navigate collaborations, which are complicated and messy even at their most basic. The field must also find ways to incubate more innovative collaborations, both by fostering connections between potential partners and providing incentives for groups to work together.

Looking for a win-win

Funders can help. The ongoing collaboration by DonorsChoose, GlobalGiving, and Kiva started with an informal conversation at a grantee gathering organized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the John Templeton Foundation has helped add fuel to their efforts by providing research grant money.

But while foundations and other funders can help incentivize more collaboration, they must do so carefully. “Foundations can be the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” says Kimon Sargeant, Templeton Foundation’s vice president of programs. “The ideal scenario is when groups identify a win-win and they come to us in the beginning. Otherwise, we risk forcing the outcome.”

One potential way to encourage more nonprofits to identify collaboration opportunities organically is through efforts such as Communities of Opportunity—a public-private partnership in King County, Washington, developed by the Seattle Foundation and the county that incentivizes nonprofits and community organizations to address deep-rooted health, housing, economic opportunity, and race inequities. Instead of being prescriptive, the Seattle Foundation and its partners are inviting community groups to propose new approaches to solving these problems. The community foundation then works with local government to find the resources to help them succeed.

“We’re trying to flip everything upside down. This is all about building community power and strengthening community capacity so that the community is leading, implementing and driving strategies,” said Michael Brown, Seattle Foundation’s vice president of community programs. “Forming new partnerships is always hard. So much of it is about relationship building and trust.”

Indeed, any successful collaboration—weather a marriage or a partnership between two established organizations—is grounded in relationship building and trust. The BBB’s roundtable represents an effort to help nonprofits start finding more purposeful ways to approach and engage in collaborations in which there is shared benefit and improved outcomes for the partners. Efforts such as these will not only benefit existing collaborations, but also open the door to accelerate more innovative and effective partnerships moving forward.