Nonprofit collaboration starts with shared dreams and a lot of flexibility.  Funders included.

Collaborating for greater impact begins with nonprofit leaders who develop wide-reaching social networks, communicate clearly about their mission and objectives, and are flexible about how those objectives are met.  Funders are uniquely positioned to recognize these leaders and create greater impact together.

This age-old concept of collaboration, working together, is worth revisiting, particularly when social change seems to have stalled.  And so, seven nonprofit leaders came to GMA Foundations recently to talk about collaboration at one of our series of lunchtime NPO Conversations.

We were excited and energized by their stories of strategic collaborations.  No formulaic approaches here.  Organic.  Open.  Personal.   We want to run back to our clients – private foundations – and talk about how certain grantees might love working together, how certain organizations might see improved outcomes by linking their services.  But we resist.  How do we know if they’re right for each other?

The experienced nonprofit leader of an arts organization had just told us over lunch about her experience several years ago with a foundation board intent on creating a merger between hers and two smaller, co-located organizations.  Despite the foundation’s good intentions to improve the financial stability of all three organizations, the timing wasn’t right.    The director was new to the job and had no relationships within the other two organizations.   The costs outweighed the immediate savings.  Despite this outcome, the grant did give her organization the funding to explore the true costs of a merger.

Now the leader is in renewed conversation about a similar merger.  If it does come to pass it will be because these nonprofits were open to partnering, and also because a foundation shared in their dream, contributing ideas and encouragement in addition to a check.

And so, how does a funder know if a nonprofit partnership might work?   In our guests’ varied stories of collaboration – both strategic and serendipitous – we found three ways in which they were similar.

The nonprofit leaders had developed a wide-reaching social network.   Developing productive relationships seems to be in their DNA.  Their networking has gone beyond bonding with peers to bridging divides to form less-likely relationships.   These leaders are thinking strategically and communicating clearly and openly about their dreams, about their challenges.  Engaged with their network, they were able to recognize well-suited partner organizations.

The founder of a healthy cooking magazine for children found her two pivotal alliances outside of her professional network of chefs and food purveyors.  With funding and very visible support from a national association of pediatricians and a global athletic shoe company, Chop Chop is now part of the much greater fight against the childhood obesity epidemic.

The nonprofit leaders conveyed a clear sense of their mission and a willingness to experiment with innovative approaches.    These leaders seemed open to new ideas.  They’ve been willing to experiment and accept an unpredictable course to their goals without losing that strong, clear focus on their organization’s mission.

Wheelock College in Boston is widely known as a teachers’ college.  Their mission, though, is much more than that – improving the lives of children and families.  A visit to their website shows the college’s propensity for flexible thinking about what programming supports that mission.

When city budget constraints eliminated crucial programming at an urban community center, the college teamed up with the neighborhood and the city to dream of the possibilities. Letting the neighbors decide what the future center would provide, the college became a trusted collaborator.  Bringing to bear a network of college faculty and staff, grantmakers, residents, civic groups and government offices, the college is living its mission outside of the classroom.

These organizations had the capacity to collaborate without compromising existing operations.  Strong relationships, clear communication and flexible thinking are not enough, though, to get the job done.  Despite a lot of planning and strategic thinking, a great project may just arrive unexpectedly.  These organizations had the operational capacity to successfully collaborate, to assume responsibility for additional work when the opportunity arose.

A private foundation sought out The North Bennet Street School, one of the country’s only schools devoted to traditional trades and fine craftsmanship, for a joint effort with a nearby nonprofit dedicated to historic preservation.  The school’s students would hone their preservation carpentry skills and its partner organization would purchase and oversee the rehabilitation of a significant 1804 residence.  Once the house was completed and sold, the proceeds could be used for a subsequent project.  The stars had aligned for successful collaboration.

Funders’ roles go beyond grantmaking.  While funding is clearly essential, ideas are a potent currency of their own.  Missions aligned, funders who allow themselves to dream big dreams right alongside nonprofits leaders maximize the effectiveness of their grantmaking.

Funders are uniquely positioned to bring organizations together around a shared mission.  Providing space for organic, creative conversation, identifying strong nonprofit leaders (see above) and encouraging experimentation might lead to collaboration.  Unexpected alliances may surface that broaden and strengthen each individual organization’s impact.

Inspired by this month’s NPO Conversation, we would advise nonprofits and funders alike to search the skies for those aligning stars.  After all, no one should have to change the world alone.