Organisation Collaboration: it doesn’t just happen

Sandy Thompson

We all know the world is too complicated to go it alone, but if collaboration is so beneficial then why aren’t we all doing it? Over the last few years LEAD has been providing training on how to collaborate as well as facilitating groups who have stepped up to work together and want to do it well. The result of this has been the gathering of a wealth of information as to what works, and what gets in the way of organisations successfully working together.

The groups we work with in the collaboration space agree - working with others, both within the sector and across sectors, is how we address the complex issues facing our communities.

Collaboration enables us all to serve with breadth and depth, strengthening all of our capacities and abilities to make a difference. What we do know is, that while there is no doubt resource sharing creates efficiencies, it is the greater effectiveness and impact that create the real benefits to communities. Research estimates only 30% of organisations are motivated to participate in partnerships because of resource scarcity.[1] Certainly with the groups we work with, it is the added value that collaboration brings that dominates conversations, over resource sharing.

Collaboration comes in many forms distinguished by the reason for the collaboration, and the intensity of the relationship. Most, if not all, organisations participate in informal and loose collaborations. The networks we belong to, the alliances we form, and the open community events we participate in, are all collaborations where expertise, information and support are shared for mutual benefit. Efficiencies, effectiveness and impact are increased however, when collaborators begin to work together to deliver complementary or shared programmes, and share leadership and resources.  These more formal types of collaborations are not for the faint hearted though, and come with risks to organisation autonomy, culture, and practice.

Over the last three years participants in eight of our collaboration workshops have identified the most significant barriers to NZ organisations building collaborations. In order of importance to the participants, these are:

1.      Lack of physical capacity, including funding and time

2.      Organisational cultural integration and values alignment

3.      Identifying potential partners

4.      Concerns about risks, including lack of outcomes; risk to reputation; loss of control and loss of identity

5.      Defining roles and relationships

Some regional issues were also raised, including geographical distance and funding based on political boundaries preventing collaboration. While all of these barriers are identified in international literature[2] on collaboration, the order of importance is unique to our NZ context. Barriers identified  and highly ranked in our groups that were not discussed in international literature, include fear of change and historical relationships.

Knowing the barriers to forming organisational collaborations is empowering for leaders.

Our experience, which aligns with the research and literature, is that collaboration with positive outcomes doesn’t just happen. Clarity, leadership, and good processes are all needed for success.

All of the identified barriers can be addressed when collaborators address these three dimensions when they build their relationships.

We know collaboration requires the appropriate mindset and behaviour from everyone in the organisation. Organisations who are successful collaborators have a culture of collaboration, including the governance team.  Research identifies boards have a crucial role to play in organisations being able to collaborate well which again is confirmed by our experience. The more linkages an organisation has with other not for profits through its board, the more likely it will develop formal types of collaborative relationship. [3]

Once upon a time we used to have mission statements where our organisations strived to be the biggest, best at what we do, and the most recognised. Thank goodness these days are behind us, and we are now seeing mission statements containing intentions such as “fully networked”, “interdependent”, and “collaborative”. To achieve this, leaders will need to purposefully seek capacity, implement good processes, and build collaborative mindsets. The winners when we do this are the communities we serve.


[1] Sowa, J. 2009. The collaboration decision in nonprofit organizations: Views from the front line. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 38(6): 1003 and Maritza Concha (2014) Exploring Collaboration, Its Antecedents, and Perceived Outcomes in Service Partnerships of Community-Based Organizations in South Florida, International Journal of Public Administration, 37:1, 44-52.

[2] Alex Neuhoff, Katie Smith Milway, Reilly Kiernan, Josh Grehan (2014). Making Sense of Nonprofit Collaborations. Bridgespan Group.

[3] Guo, C., & Acar, M. (2005). Understanding Collaboration Among Nonprofit Organizations: Combining Resource Dependency, Institutional, and Network Perspectives. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 34(3), 340–361.