Making Partnerships and Cooperative Relationships Work

Today’s environment lauds and extols partnerships and cooperative relationships involving nonprofit organizations. When two or more organizations find a way to join forces and either co-develop programs or coordinate their providing services, it is applauded by contributors, funders and stakeholders. It is a smart way to avoid duplication, limit competition and capitalizes on agencies’ knowledge and expertise and has become an accepted part of the nonprofit landscape. It also sends a strong message to the community at-large about efficiency and resourcefulness.

When organizations decide they want to explore working together, whether it be in a cooperative relationship or a partnership, it is imperative that they define upfront what each wants from the relationship and how each agency can benefit from working together. During the early phase of this process the organizations need to get to know each other, which often includes meetings between more than two CEO’s, although there are times when key staff members responsible for specific departments and services must be part of these conversations, as well. When appropriate, volunteer leaders can also be brought in on the process to explore the implications for determining relevant policies as well as discussion about allocating valuable resources. During this process it is important to identify the added value for each organization in entering into this new relationship whether it be a cooperative working agreement or a partnership.

Please note that there is a difference between a cooperative relationship and a partnership. A cooperative relationship is characterized by two nonprofit organizations working together without drafting a formal agreement. For example, a community center and a school come together to develop an after-school program to meet the needs of special-needs youth. Certainly, teachers from the school and community youth workers can be involved to identify the children who would benefit from participating, but in this relationship there is nothing formal binding them together. Organizations cooperating with each other are able to leverage their strengths in building a more comprehensive approach and sharing information while making it possible for clients to receive a coordinated service. From the perspective of the client it means there is an understanding that agencies are speaking with each other and therefore being more responsive to the consumer’s needs. In general, cooperative relationships enable nonprofits to enhance their services and operate more efficiently.

The hallmark of the cooperative relationship is the way organizations strengthen their relationship to clients by sharing their information without compromising their independence. Their working together is limited to coordinating the services the clients receive without changing their own organizational structures. Thus, services are not provided to the clients via a single entity, but rather are two separate agencies that work together to enhance what they each offer.

A partnership is very different and it is characterized by organizations formalizing their affiliation via a contractual relationship that specifies which services they will be providing and how they will be delivered. Often agencies that are providing similar services decide to forge partnerships because it would not only be advantageous to work together, but it is advantageous to develop a closer working relationship. This might even lead to a merger of the two organizations.

For example, two nonprofits are providing similar services in the same geographical area decided that instead of competing with each other, it would be more efficient and effective to offer one service together. This is often the case for two agencies providing services to families and children. One of the best known examples was the case of the Jewish Board of Guardians and the Jewish Family Service in New York. Although they had different conceptual approaches to working with families and children, the services were very complimentary. Therefore, a decision was made to begin working together in a formal partnership and this eventually led to a merger between the two organizations.

The two organizations were able to analyze which services they provided that were similar and which services were similar. They then moved to identify in what neighborhoods they both had offices and in what neighborhoods they will the sole providers. Once this was accomplished they presented the information to their respective boards of directors and to their major funders.

A frequent question when it comes to partnerships is whether it brings with it a loss of funding from contributors and foundations because efforts have been combined. Actually, the opposite is true. When a central organization like a Jewish Federation or other umbrella planning and funding groups see nonprofits making efforts to reduce duplication, combine resources and work together then they are more likely to continue their support, if not increase it. Thus, when the opportunity arises for nonprofits to join forces and work together the first response should be to explore all potential opportunities. The end result could very well strengthen each of the organizations and provide more comprehensive services to the community.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.