Above the desks of many nonprofit executives you will find these words: “If you want to travel quickly, go alone. If you want to travel far, go together.”
Nonprofit collaboration is harder than it sounds. Economics, game theory, and behavioral science suggest some lessons on how organizations might collaborate more often and more effectively.
Six steps for climbing the collaboration mountain
Collaboration can challenge nonprofit leaders’ sense of identity. We would be wise to respect how emotionally and intellectually difficult it can be for practitioners of social change to acknowledge that they cannot succeed alone. So let us look to behavioral science—and to our own experiences—for insights on how we might find a path to climb Collaboration Mountain.
Define the community. It is essential that collaborators find a sense of shared identity. The first step is to identify what the groups have in common
Name the weakness. This statement puts the speaker in a humble frame of mind, making them more receptive to help. Similarly, nonprofits can open themselves to collaboration by acknowledging their limitations as independent actors. Nonprofits can then immediately build on naming the weakness by highlighting the opportunity.
Identify the Sherpa. Multi-lateral collaboration greatly benefits from a guide—a person or organization—to manage the process, provide encouragement, and help solidify a shared vision. Like a Sherpa leading climbers up a mountain, they are both participant and leader, bearing costs and reaping shared rewards.
Make explicit the implicit division of labor. Over time, nonprofits tend to differentiate themselves: One organization takes the west side of a town, another the east; or one handles middle-school students, another high-school students. Once potential collaborators acknowledge those differences, they can capitalize on them.
Demonstrate proof points. One powerful human tendency is to do what we see others doing. Nonprofits are far more likely to collaborate if they see relatable examples of other successful collaborations. It can be a step-wise process of sharing simple examples, building confidence, bringing in new data, and making larger steps possible.
Design collective systems. Formalized systems for knowledge sharing, governance, and external communications not only create value, but also reinforce collective identity and incentivize organizations to remain in the group. This makes it more likely that the collaboration lasts long enough to achieve the desired change.
This six-step approach is neither linear nor immutable. Some collaborations may skip a step or move through them in a different order, but a trip down this path can name, build, and strengthen new communities of organizations bound together by common purpose.
The challenges the nonprofit sector faces are big and they are complex. Economics reminds us that we need collective action to achieve scale. Game theory reminds us how hard it can be to overcome our narrow interests. But society, again and again, has proven its ability to resolve these dilemmas and shown that we can break these unhealthy equilibria; we believe that when communities, government and the private sector come together, they can help non-profits do the same.