4 Ideas for Finding Collaborations That Expand Your Nonprofit’s Reach and Impact

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To make a meaningful difference in the world, we need to collaborate with others. We know this is true on a personal level: Your $50 donation matters because it’s pooled with contributions from many other donors; your vote matters because it’s counted with the votes of others. It’s also true within your nonprofit: Every day, team members work together across departments to make a difference for the people you serve.

And it’s true at the organizational level too. When nonprofits collaborate with other nonprofits, there’s a whole host of benefits:

Nonprofit collaborations can help prevent mission creep.

Well-meaning nonprofits can be tempted to stray from their expertise in their desire to do more good. Instead of having to choose between taking on a project that’s outside the scope of your mission or saying no to an exciting opportunity, collaboration allows you to focus on what you do best and bring in partners for the rest.

Nonprofit collaborations can help you reach more people.

There are many people right now who don’t know your organization well (or at all) but could benefit greatly from your programs and services. Other organizations, however, have built relationships with these people. By partnering with these organizations, you can leverage that existing trust and expand your reach.

Nonprofit collaborations can help deepen your impact.

A partnership with a nonprofit that complements the work you do can increase the depth of your impact on a person’s life. Imagine a free health clinic collaborating with a nonprofit that helps find homes for homeless people; when people have homes, they have a safe place to keep their medications so adherence improves and they get better faster. That individual is better served by the two nonprofits together than by either one separately.

Despite these benefits, many nonprofit organizations still struggle with or actively resist collaborating with others. Why?

First, successful nonprofit collaborations are tricky and require two or more organizations that may do things very differently to find a way to mesh their operations. Sometimes nonprofit staff feel like they’re spread too thin; they’re so busy with day-to-day responsibilities that new, longer term projects just don’t get any bandwidth. Additionally, organizational inertia can set in, especially for older nonprofits: “This is how we’ve always done things, so why change?”

In our experience, if a nonprofit is not collaborating with other organizations, they are not being as effective as they could be. It’s rare that your work is focused so narrowly that other nonprofits can’t help you make a bigger impact. We’ve seen examples of nonprofits that are serving the very same families but haven’t worked together or even spoken to each other.

While collaborations between nonprofits can run the gamut from simple, one-time events to more nuanced, grant-funded programs that run indefinitely, the first step is to identify potential partners. Here are four strategies our clients have used successfully to find collaboration opportunities to expand their reach and increase their positive impact:


1. Invite Community Feedback

There are two types of feedback you can get from the community you serve: high-level and ground-level. High-level feedback can come from conducting regular community needs assessments. You could also form an advisory board comprised of people in your community that provide feedback on your strategic planning and operations. Ensuring that your nonprofit’s board of directors includes key community members is another smart idea.

High-level feedback can reveal valuable insights, but the information can sometimes be a bit removed from the people who actually use your services. Therefore, we also recommend soliciting ground-level feedback from your clients. For example, you can host an event where you interact with your clients, make regular follow-up calls with clients, or simply train those who deliver your programs and services to listen for unmet needs or challenges in the community.

Feedback of any type helps you better understand the needs of the people you serve. That information may point you to other organizations — or at least other types of organizations — that can help you better address those needs.


2. Meet Regularly with Colleagues

Sometimes you’ll have an idea for a collaboration with a specific organization: “Here’s my idea, and I’d like your help with it.” But in our experience, the best collaborations more often come from conversations between two or more people who care about a cause, just talking about what’s going on in that space. But for those kinds of conversations to happen, you must create the space for them in your busy day.

We recommend taking colleagues out for coffee — weekly if you can. At those meetings, be genuinely interested in what others are doing and what their organizations are struggling with. Ask, “What’s your organization’s biggest challenge right now?” Share your knowledge and experience freely. Don’t go in with an agenda or pitch. In fact, your goal should be to listen more than you talk.

Reciprocity is natural for people who serve a greater good. Sometimes the best way to advance your mission is to help others advance theirs first. Don’t be surprised if these conversations naturally transform from “How can I help you?” to “How can we help each other?”


3. Serve on the Boards of Other Nonprofits

We sometimes encourage nonprofit leaders we work with to join the boards of other nonprofits in their community. Not only can your experience and expertise be an asset for those other organizations, but it’s a way for you to get to know other community leaders, find out what’s going on outside your direct area of service, and discover new opportunities to make an impact.

Relationships built from differing perspectives but a common desire to serve can very naturally lead to new and exciting collaborative ideas that wouldn’t normally occur to individuals on their own. While it requires time and effort to serve on a nonprofit’s board, it could become one of your nonprofit’s best sources for rewarding collaborations.


4. Attend Chamber of Commerce Events

Nonprofits sometimes operate in a “nonprofit bubble” that can limit their opportunities to make a difference. And while we are strong advocates for the nonprofit model, we acknowledge there’s often value in learning from for-profit businesses and even partnering with them.

First, the for-profit sector provides valuable perspective and information. For-profit businesses must cater directly to their customers’ needs; if they don’t, they’re not in business very long. What are they seeing in the community? What needs are going unmet? How do those needs intersect with your work?

Additionally, successful for-profit businesses are very good at executing on ideas, and for-profit business owners tend to have a hustle that nonprofits can learn from. The transition from idea to action can sometimes be slow for nonprofits. Is there a for-profit business you can partner with that might, by its nature, help you roll out a new program a bit faster?

At a minimum, chamber of commerce events are a great way for you to learn more about the community you serve. Even if you don’t meet specific partners, you’ll have a better perspective on how your work fits the bigger picture, which may spark ideas for future collaborations.


Final Words: Setting Goals

We like to say that if something is important, put it on your schedule. Therefore, we encourage you to pick one of the strategies we’ve suggested above and schedule it. For example, make it a goal every month to invite two nonprofit leaders in your community to coffee. Or put on the agenda for your next leadership team meeting to talk about ways to formalize community feedback. By scheduling these actions, you make yourself accountable for follow-through. In fact, if you’re serious about pursuing nonprofit collaborations, why not make it part of your goals for the year that get included in your annual performance evaluation?

Successful nonprofit collaborations require effort but they are worth it. By partnering with others in your community, your nonprofit can increase both your reach and impact. Take it seriously and you can make collaboration more of the norm for your organization than the exception.


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