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Monday, August 26, 2019

Is Collaboration the Key to Nonprofit Success?

In Part 1 of this two-part series, we discuss why collaboration among nonprofits is essential to them efficiently achieving their missions. Stay tuned for Part 2 when we highlight a number of highly-rated charities who have identified innovative ways to work together to promote effective solutions to the issues they are addressing. 

We’re often inspired to support a charity based on their vision for a better world--one without hunger, homelessness, or disease. Organizations dare to imagine a day when these problems no longer exist and invite us to be part of the solution through our support.

But, tackling these issues can be difficult, if not impossible, when organizations lack sufficient resources. Many charities are striving to achieve their ambitious missions with limited staff and shoestring budgets. This often leads to splintered programs focused on alleviating symptoms indefinitely, rather than addressing the real root of the problem.

To have a meaningful impact, organizations must embrace collaboration and adopt a comprehensive, focused approach for tackling the issues they set out to address. Here’s why...

Many nonprofits set out to tackle broad, ambitious missions like ending hunger or eliminating homelessness. On one hand, the goals for a world without hunger, homelessness, and other issues are motivating. Charities are daring to believe in a world where these problems can be solved and we can be part of that solution by supporting them. But, on the other hand, these lofty dreams can be frustrating and discouraging. Progress is slow and setbacks are frequent. And, our visions for a better world can start to dim.

It’s too easy to get cynical and assume that charities aren’t capable of affecting real change, that their missions are too ambitious to be realistic and our dreams of a better world are naive. We must remember that nonprofits have been responsible for championing milestone legislation, funding groundbreaking medical research, and discovering innovative steps forward in the work to end systemic issues. 

We must also realize that these advances are rarely won in a vacuum. A significant step forward is seldom the work of a single nonprofit. It almost always requires nonprofits to gain a deep understanding of the problem they are working to solve, take an honest account of where they exceed and fall short, and find partners who share a similar vision and can complement their efforts. 

There are two common missteps that limit the possible success for charities in solving the problems they set out to tackle. The first is a symptoms-only approach that ignores the root causes of the issue. And, the second is trying to do too much with too little. 

To be successful, charities must acknowledge that issues like the aforementioned hunger and homelessness are fueled by underlying factors like environmental changes and socioeconomic inequity. Focusing on keeping the food bank’s shelves stocked is important, but it only addresses the symptom of community hunger and food insecurity. This approach is unsustainable. Hunger will persist until charities begin to identify and address the root causes of the greater problem.

But, charities who see beyond a problem’s symptoms and understand the other factors at work can fall into a trap of trying to do too much with too little. Rather than thoughtfully directing their resources at one or two contributing factors, they may splinter their resources and try to address them all. This is just as ineffective at finding real, meaningful solutions as solely focusing on a problem’s symptoms. 

Charities are most effective when they work with other organizations to complement their efforts and maximize their impact. This allows all parties to focus their resources on the issues they address well. 

Why should we care?

Nonprofits are increasingly recognizing the importance of collaboration as they work to achieve their missions. As their supporters, we should encourage them to find partners in their work and celebrate their successes.

We can do this by being curious about how a charity is tracking toward their mission and whether or not they are making an impact. We should ask the organizations we support how they’ve identified the problem and who they are partnering with to maximize their impact. 

Additionally, we should be interested in the data they are using to identify the issue they are working to solve, as well as the metrics they are tracking to determine their success and whether or not their efforts are effective. 

This piece was inspired by conversations with a close friend of Charity Navigator and written by Ashley Post, Communications Manager.

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Unknown said...

Thanks for this article. I've been frustrated with this issue for years and wondered why organizations (for example) the NRDC doesn't team up with Sierra Club, Greenpeace, etc to create a more holistic approach to environmental issues. In writing the article, however, I was hoping that at the end, you would say how Charity Navigator would be adding that information to your reports so, as a donor, I could see that the charity I give to is addressing the bigger issue and partnering with other organizations I also support. Do you have any plans to add that component to your reports?

Heather said...

Yes! The problems nonprofits seek solutions to are large. I work with SafeHouse Ministries and we make a point to collaborate and refer clients to other nonprofits who focus in areas we don't. While housing someone coming out of homelessness, we refer to MercyMed for health issues, Homeless Resource Network for identification, and Goodwill for job training. It helps everyone treat an individual more holistically and less on treating just a symptom.