Strengthening Nonprofit Organizations Through Coordination, Cooperation and Collaboration

Several weeks ago I had a conversation with a colleague who raised a question about the competition among nonprofit organizations in Israel. She was quite perturbed by the lack of willingness and inability of organizations to work together. Unfortunately many organizations are unable to cooperate, coordinate and collaborate in the delivery of their services to the community. In addition, exploring and developing ways of providing services together is, at the very least, not desirable and for some organizations it was to be avoided, almost at any cost. By developing a better understanding of alternative ways of working together the resistance can be overcome and people can begin to pool their resources and strengthen each other at the same time.

There are several different levels of shared efforts in the provision of human services. Each level deepens their connections and the way the professional staff members and volunteer leaders in the agencies relate to each other. These efforts communicate an important message to a number of constituencies including, clients, donors, community leaders, and others.

On a very basic level organizations can coordinate their services with each other. Essentially this means that nonprofits communicate with each other. They share information so they are not in conflict with each other.

For example, many organizations hold annual dinners focused on resource development, recognizing volunteers, and/or electing board of directors for a new term, among other purposes. By instituting a “community calendar” conflicts are avoided that would mean people do not have to make a choice of supporting one agency’s activities over another nonprofit in the community.

In a similar way, communities would achieve a great deal by not holding their fundraising campaign at the same time of year. The year can be divided among the organizations and provide opportunities for each agency to have a different part of the year to implement their campaign to raise the needed funds. Because some months are more preferable to others for soliciting donors, organizations have different times for their annual campaign each year while other communities assign the same month(s) to the agencies each year.

Coordination, the second level, involves a deeper and strong connection between and among the organizations. Using the example of the annual campaign, there is the “United Way” model when the nonprofit organizations work to plan and implement a singular annual campaign in the community. The volunteer leaders and staff members work at raising funds in the community together and committees then allocate the funds based upon agreed criteria.

The organizations’ leadership understands more can be achieved by their working together rather than each agency conducting a separate campaign at a different time of the year. By coordinating their efforts and their schedules they are able to plan each year in advance. They know when they will be involved in the campaign together and when they will be able, if necessary, to conduct ongoing fundraising activities for their special campaigns, e.g. a capital campaign for a new building project or a campaign to develop a planned giving and endowment program. These would be coordinated so two special campaigns would not be conducted at the same time in the community.

A third level of nonprofits working together is collaborative efforts to identify community needs and to jointly provide the needed services. Often agencies have the ability to complement and strengthen each other instead of offering the same or similar programs to clients/members in the same geographical area. In these instances the nonprofit organizations identifying community needs can work together from the very beginning to provide a comprehensive service to the community.

A number of years ago, a Jewish family service agency developed a program to provide consultation services to local Jewish pre-schools. The preschool teachers recognized children who were having problems. Often they would either refer the parents to local psychologists or psychiatrists in private practice or in several instances the schools hired a mental health professional to work with their teachers.

At one of the Jewish Family Service agency’s board meetings there was a discussion of the needs of young families. The discussion focused on the critical role the pre-school could play in identifying problems and assisting the parents in order for them to receive the help they needed to deal with the challenges faced by the family. One of the board members was also active at one of the pre-schools. She suggested that the director of the Jewish family service agency look into the issues at the Jewish pre-schools in the area.

Following meetings with the pre-school principals a committee was formed composed of the principals and a number of professionals from the Jewish family agency. A decision was made to offer the pre-schools a collaborative consultation service involving the principals, the teachers and the agency’s social workers. The schools shared in the ownership of the program with the Jewish family service. This new comprehensive service met the needs of both the pre-schools and the children’s parents.

Thus, when organizational egos can be put aside and the professional and volunteer leadership can share their vision, knowledge and expertise the community can benefit in a number of ways. It speaks to the strengthen of the community’s interest in providing comprehensive services that pool the their resources in order to serve their members.

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 nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.