by Laurie Dean Torrell
The purpose of this essay is to revisit Collaboration—a topic I explored in two previous CultureWork articles (Torrell, 2009 and 2011). Evident in those pieces was that my own experience in administrative collaboration brought many benefits and an increasing number of challenges. In years since, what has not changed is the siren call, especially from funders, holding out collaboration as the answer to every nonprofit’s problems. My own thinking has evolved to believe this is a dangerous myth. Remember in Greek mythology, the Sirens lured nearby sailors with enchanting music to shipwreck on the rocky shores of their island—the siren call an enticing appeal of something alluring but potentially dangerous. Especially for small and midsized nonprofits, I have seen time-and-again benefits exaggerated and challenges overlooked. For this reason, I offer several current thoughts:
You go into Collaboration thinking of efficiencies and possibilities. In reality, they often require a significant investment of both time and money over a long time to become successful. Do you have excess capacity to devote to this effort? What benefits might there be in staying light and unencumbered?
It’s essential to know the true financial status of both (all) organizations:
- Balance sheet – especially unrestricted net assets
- Audits from past 3-5 years: in balance or out of balance & for how long?
- Current statement of activities (budget vs. actual) and Treasurer’s Reports
What is their understanding of their current financial situation and how does that align with the reality you see? Be very cautious in getting involved with a financially unbalanced or unstable organization unless all cards are on the table and there is a clear plan to manage. Funders often urge collaboration hardest when groups are in trouble. It can be a smart way to leverage investments and build capacity, but this is not a given. Assess benefits from pursuing this effort vs. time, energy, effort and funding which could be used to strategically strengthen your own individual organization. This “opportunity cost” is essential to consider with time and resources finite.
One of the greatest benefits of collaboration can be creation of a ‘brain trust’, a diverse group of staff and board members who can bring expanded intelligence, experience and perspective to the table. At the same time, there is significant risk in tying your destiny and reputation to another organization; and a persistent reality is that groups trend towards the lowest functioning member or entity. Something almost always missed is that collaborative capacity should be thought of as the product (not the sum or average) of the underlying entities (Adner, 2012). If you join with a group that’s lower functioning (let’s say working at .60% capacity compared with your own .85%), multiply these two numbers. Almost certainly, you will not be brought closer to 100% or even stay at 85% with this collaboration. You will now be starting at 55%, suggesting each might have had a better chance of succeeding independently.
Adner, R. (2012). The Wide Lens: A New Strategy for Innovation (pp.47-49). New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Backer, T.E. (2002). Partnerships as an Art Form: What Works and What Doesn’t in Nonprofit Arts Partnerships. Human Interaction Research Institute. Retrieved from http://www.creativecity.ca/database/files/library/partnership_art_form.pdf
de Souza Briggs, X. (2003). Perfect Fit or Shotgun Marriage? Understanding the Power and Pitfalls in Partnerships. The Community Problem-Solving Project @ MIT. Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/cpsproject/images/PerfectFit.pdf
Torrell, L.D. (2011). Creative Entanglement: The Challenges and Promises of Collaboration. CultureWork: A Digital Broadside for Arts & Culture Workers, 15. Retrieved from http://culturework.uoregon.edu/2011/10/06/october-2011-vol-15-no-4-creative-entanglement-the-challenges-and-promises-of-collaboration-laurie-dean-torrell/
Torrell, L.D. (2009). Concentric Concerns: The Art of Administrative Collaboration. CultureWork: A Digital Broadside for Arts & Culture Workers, 13. Retrieved from http://pages.uoregon.edu/culturwk/culturework43.html
Laurie Dean Torrell is a passionate advocate for the nonprofit sector (www.Ldtorrell.com), and is Executive Director of Just Buffalo Literary Center, one of the 10 largest literary arts centers in the nation (www.justbuffalo.org). Under her leadership, the organization has secured competitive grants and donations to more than double the budget; and is now in the midst of JB40, a three-year $1M campaign (2015-2017) to fully establish the new Just Buffalo Writing Center for teens, expand visibility and participation, and ensure Just Buffalo’s work and mission remain vital for years to come.