With COVID boosters scheduled and the kids’ vaccine around the corner, there’s hope that we may be rounding the corner of our collective pandemic marathon. I have been wondering what will remain from this seemingly endless period of triage. I would love to see more organizations firmly establish more flexible work environments that allow teams to think creatively about how to get their work done. Perhaps we will remain more cognizant that our co-workers have lives after seeing their kids and/or pets flash across their Zoom backgrounds. Maybe staff members will actually be encouraged to take sick time! However, the one thing that I most hope will remain is the shared collaborative spirit of this time.
During the pandemic, we have seen nonprofits work alongside each other in ways never seen before. Forced to re-examine impact when our world was practically turned upside-down, organizations have formed new partnerships to re-allocate resources for causes historically outside of their mission, such as food security and racial justice. I’ve noticed more transparency and honesty when talking about partnerships as we’ve worked together to find our way during this extremely challenging time for the sector. Funders have broken down traditional barriers, from automatically issuing extra funding at the beginning of the pandemic to re-examining grant applications and reporting to make the philanthropic process more equitable and bring more diverse voices to the table.
1: to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor
2: to cooperate with or willingly assist an enemy of one’s country and especially an occupying force
3: to cooperate with an agency or instrumentality with which one is not immediately connected
The Center for Nonprofit Excellence lists collaboration as one of its 7 Actionable Principles for a Strong Social Sector, an impactful call to action for both the nonprofit and philanthropic sector:
We effect positive change by collaborating with and adapting to the needs of our communities. We seek collaboration where it makes sense as a grounding principle of doing business, and we leverage partnerships for greater impact with nonprofits, public, private and higher education sectors, and community members with lived experience. We acknowledge and understand root causes for systemic challenges, and we take action by joining forces and allocating resources toward a common goal of addressing root causes and changing systems. We center the community we serve in informing our work and making our decisions. We value and promote a culture of humility, adaptability, and continuous learning where we encourage reflection on lessons learned, questioning the status quo, and taking risks in support of better service.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of working together toward a common goal. Even though some have been hit significantly harder than others, no one—person, business, or sector—has been spared from challenges. I’m outlining some principles that can help fuel a collaborative spirit and drive our hard work—together.
1. Allow vulnerability.
If you want to have impactful, real collaboration, you need to have real conversations. As much as possible, talk honestly about things that your organization struggles with. You can stay away from internal things that perhaps shouldn’t be shared while talking openly about areas of growth that could benefit from an outside perspective. The collaborator across the table might be struggling in similar ways and you can bounce ideas off of each other as thought partners. Or, their organization might have particular strengths in the area of your struggle (or vice-versa!) and you can forge a partnership that benefits both of you. You may discover that your perceived solution is actually out-of-sync with what is needed by the community. Be sure to listen and look inward. The key is moving beyond the superficial sharing of information and high-resolution logos, and toward putting in the work that leads to genuine long-lasting relationships.
2. Be a helper.
All relationships take work, and professional collaborations are no exception. During those vulnerable conversations, listen and take note! Identify one or two things that you could keep tabs on to benefit your partner. If your partner needs better evaluation data, can you simply add a question to a survey that will solicit helpful responses for them? If they are looking to build buy-in with their board, whose voices can you mobilize to build support? You’re building a relationship with a person, not just an organization. Listen for things that could make their work easier, and look for thoughtful ways you can deliver without adding too much to your plate. Also, check in from time to time without asking for anything (even if just a quick email!) to see how their work is going. A little can go a long way in terms of making a collaborator feel seen and supported.
3. Elevate voices.
As you look for collaborators, be sure that you are involving diverse community stakeholders at all stages of your work. As we all rebound, it’s important that we utilize our organizations’ positions to elevate those in the community who have not always been heard—and who may have been struggling even more during this time. Acknowledge that your organization may have an institutional bias that has been a barrier to collaboration in the past. During this time of re-emergence, center your work on bringing more voices to the table to ensure that your organization is being a good steward of its resources in the community. Provide opportunities for community groups to be a part of envisioning your organization’s impact, and dream big together! Finally, encourage them to hold you accountable for providing inclusive programs and solutions that actually meet the needs you’ve identified.
4. Value conversation at all levels.
Collaboration can begin at all levels of an organization. A meeting between executive directors might result in budgeting decisions and cross-departmental marching orders. Fellow board members might identify common funding sources that would support a joint program. Program staff might initiate collaboration from the ground up, thinking creatively about using existing resources together. No matter how it starts, it’s important to bring in all levels to the conversation after the initial groundwork is laid, because that’s how long-standing partnerships are sustained, year after year.
As nonprofits come out of this earth-shattering time, there are endless opportunities to look at the pieces and find new connections. If we open ourselves up to working in new ways, together, we will all benefit. When we join forces toward a common goal of serving our community, we will re-emerge stronger and more resilient—seeing lasting community impact that can only come from a shared collaborative spirit.