December 17, 2014

Making Sense of Nonprofit Collaborations

Associations, joint programs, shared support functions, and mergers are all means to grow impact, be it through advocacy, lowering costs, or increasing scope and scale of programs. But little is known about how frequently these collaborations take place, nor how successful they are. A survey of both funders and nonprofits charts the landscape.

By: Alex Neuhoff, Reilly Kiernan, Josh Grehan

Executive Summary

Collaborations are at the heart of the Collective Impact movement and key to strengthening all types of organizations' ability to scale results. Yet little is known about how much collaboration is actually taking place, in what forms, and to what end.

More on Collaborations

  • Learn more about nonprofit mergers and collaborations in the Mergers That Make a Difference Resource Center.

    Go to the Resource Center

To better understand the use and success of collaborations, The Bridgespan Group, in collaboration with The Lodestar Foundation, surveyed 237 nonprofit CEOs and 101 foundation officers in 2014 on their participation in four common forms of formal collaboration: associations (including coalitions and community collaboratives), joint programs, shared support functions, and mergers (including subsidiary relationships). The survey uncovered details about their participation, as well as the barriers that block results. The study found that:

  • Ninety-one percent of respondents were engaged in some form of collaboration.
  • At least 75 percent of nonprofit leaders and grantmakers viewed collaborations across the board as largely successful.
  • Both funders and nonprofits wanted more collaboration of all types, in particular shared support functions and mergers.

The study also found three impediments to increasing collaboration that funders and nonprofits will need to address to make the most of the potential for collaboration:

  • Lack of funder support for collaboration: Nonprofits say they receive little support; funders say nonprofits don't ask.
  • The difficulty of finding the right partner: Nonprofits rate this as their highest barrier, and grantmakers rate it their lowest.
  • The downside of well-intentioned funder influence, particularly when it comes to joint programs: Nonprofits say joint programs have the highest failure rate, too often driven by funder requests; grantmakers say joint programs don't fail.

This report explores the findings in detail, sharing positive trends in collaboration as well as the barriers that keep nonprofits and funders from working more effectively to realize the promise of collaborations.

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