Collaboration among non-profits has become the “new normal.” There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is that funders are now seeking proposals from collaborating groups who can work together to provide a full and complete set of resources to a community. In fact, if you were to submit a proposal to a community foundation for an after school program, chances are the foundation staff would ask, “Why aren’t you collaborating with other, established, after school providers whom we already fund?”
While this trend may be frustrating to more entrepreneurial non-profit managers, it does have its advantages. Depending upon the form of collaboration you choose, you may be able to draw on another organization’s strengths to fill your gaps – and vice versa. That means you may not need a full-fledged finance department or a strong human resources department if your collaborator can provide those services. Meanwhile, you can offer, for example, great expertise in a particular area, well-regarded programs, or some other strength your collaborator lacks.
What does collaboration look like? There are a wide range of possibilities. For example…
The greater Philadelphia area is chock-a-block filled with small, private, Catholic colleges for women. There’s Rosemont College, Cabrini College, and Gwynedd-Mercy College, to name just a few. All are in a similar location, all have similar missions and similar student bodies. At one point, all were in competition with one another for both funds and students.
Then someone came up with an innovative idea: why not join forces, and create shared fundraising and academic programs?
And so was born the Southeastern Pennsylvania Consortium for Higher Education (SEPCHE). Over the years, SEPCHE has applied for and won many major foundation and federal grants, while also creating undergraduate and graduate programs building on the various colleges’ particular strengths.
SEPCHE represents one form of fundraising collaboration: joint program development and fundraising among a group of peer non-profits. But there are many other ways for non-profits to collaborate. For example:
When a small start-up non-profit collaborates with a large, established non-profit (like the YMCA or a well-known college or university), both organizations gain. For example, if a small non-profit interested in health and wellness partners with the Y, the smaller non-profit is more likely to win their grant – but the Y also gains a new, innovative health and wellness program, complete with trained staff, at no added cost.
- When two smaller non-profits merge to become one larger institution, both non-profits can gain. On Cape Cod, the Cape Cod Symphony and the Cape Cod Conservatory joined forces, bringing together professional performing capabilities with music education. Because the two sets of programs and staff complement one another, the new organization can cultivate a much broader range of funders.
- When one non-profit contracts to another for specific services, both can benefit from a single grant. For example, a private school might apply for a grant to develop and implement a program related to local history, and include the local historical society in the budget as a consulting advisor to the project.
Collaboration isn’t right for every project – and some organizations may prefer to go it alone. But most of the time, when planning for a major grant, it make sense to raise the question “should we consider collaboration?” When the answer is yes, there’s a lot to be gained.