There's been a lot of talk lately about some associations and nonprofits starting to lose sight of service to members or constituents, shifting focus to keeping the organization itself alive. Perhaps the effects of economic recession are to blame for an increased sense of competition between some not-for-profit groups, but other nonprofits have reacted to tough times in a radically different way – by partnering up and even going as far as formally merging – in the interests of greater efficiency and impact.
Partnership is far from a new concept for nonprofits, of course, but it has never been more timely.
A few years back, Marion Conway gave a talk on Partnering for Nonprofits to a networking group. In the accompanying blog post, in which she discusses how partnerships both within the third sector and with corporate partners can be a “win-win” for everyone concerned, Marion lists 6 key benefits of partnering with other nonprofits:
- Using and leveraging your own resources and strengths
- Learning from the other organization's strengths
- Operating more efficient programs
- Operating more diverse programs
- Developing new networks and new audiences
- And of course... Funders LOVE partnering.
I’ll add one more:
By partnering with other organizations that share your cause, or pursue a closely related mission, you’re helping your supporters to take action – to make a decision about where to direct their donations and volunteer hours.
As Kristin Ivie puts it,
There are so many slightly different groups with similar goals and services that it’s becoming difficult for individuals to find the time for all these groups and similarly difficult for these groups to find enough active members to maintain their chapters.
Two organizations pulling together for a single cause lends more weight, more public credibility, to that cause. And a shared campaign or program means less confusion in messaging – together, you can put out one clear call to action. Both of the partner organizations gain from each other's strengths on the team, and, more to the point, the shared cause will benefit.
From collaboration (for example, sharing information and coordinating event schedules with a like-minded group) to partnership (collaboration in joint projects and programs with tangible resources on the table) is not a huge leap.
For smaller nonprofit organizations with overlapping missions, however, a full-on merger might prove a better alternative than continued competition between nonprofits for limited resources.
Examples? There are plenty.
Since the first rumblings of the economic recession, we’ve been seeing an increasing number of cases where nonprofits have found that joining forces is in the best interests of those they serve:
Take the recent case of two animal rescue groups in one small city that merged as a logical alternative to struggling on with two separate aging and inadequate shelters. Now joined under a new combined identity, the staff and volunteers of both are working together to raise funds to build the much-needed new facility.
Or the case of the two Maryland water trail conservation and stewardship groups who merged to form the Chesapeake Conservancy earlier this summer.
Or this example, reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a few months back:
For 23 years, North Hills Community Outreach, based in Hampton with a satellite office in Millvale, has provided families in economic crisis with utility assistance, emergency financial help, access to food pantries and economic and job counseling. Community Auto was founded in 2003 as a volunteer-run program to accept donated vehicles, have them repaired and sell them at a reasonable price to low-income workers. The program relies on vehicle donations from the public.
The two formed a partnership in 2005, with Community Outreach providing back office functions so Community Auto could build its organization. But with two boards and two sets of books, costs were duplicated without a corresponding increase in productivity. With the official merger Jan. 31, Community Auto became a program of North Hills Community Outreach and no longer has a separate nonprofit status.
Mergers aren’t the wise choice for every nonprofit, of course, and organizational culture is notoriously resistant to change – especially when that change involves a perceived loss of identity and influence! – but there’s nothing too boat-rocking about a good sound partnership.
Do take a good look around your community for possible win-win partnerships within the nonprofit sector, while you’re out there hunting for corporate sponsors.
And if a nonprofit partnership of some sort does come up in your organizations’ future, you’ll find it helpful to be familiar with “common pitfalls and challenges.” The National Council of Nonprofits. They’ve assembled a handy page of tips and resources on Collaboration, Mergers, and Partnering to help get you off on the right foot.
What do you think? Is there a way for your group to join forces with another nonprofit to build a win-win partnership?
If you’re already partnering with another nonprofit – tell us your story!
Photo credit: TheTruthAbout