How Collaboration Can Spur Innovation and Spread Good Ideas (Part I)

Thursday, July 14, 2016

How Collaboration Can Spur Innovation and Spread Good Ideas (Part I)
By Leigh Ross, Program Associate, Promising Futures, The New York Community Trust

When nonprofits work together, they pick up new perspectives, new ideas. They become more efficient. They increase resources, and innovation flourishes. End of story. Right?

Not so fast. In reality, well-intentioned partnerships often struggle. This summer, education funders have a few opportunities to think about the power of collaboration through upcoming programs like “Deep Integration of Community Based Organizations and Schools” on July 26, and the “South Bronx Learning Tour” on Aug. 4.

And based on my experience, I also have some tips for making partnerships work.

Since 2010, the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund in The New York Community Trust has supported the development of more than 100 collaboratively produced, digitally-driven youth education projects, involving dozens of different nonprofits. We’ve had the opportunity to help many of our grantees get partnerships off the ground.

Along the way, we’ve identified several key predictors of success:  

Openness and Transparency
Our Fund primarily supports the members of the Hive NYC Learning Network, a consortium of youth-serving organizations that are tapping into the educational potential of digital technology. Grantees are expected to participate actively in the Network, and use Creative Commons licenses and open-source technology when possible. By prioritizing openness and transparency, we’re helping our grantees get past the competitive, “what’s in it for me?” mindset that derails many otherwise promising partnerships.

Designated Grant Dollars
In a sector that is perennially under-resourced, funding can help justify time spent on relationship building. As one grantee said, “My boss wouldn’t have authorized me to spend as much time as I have” on establishing and maintaining partnerships, “unless there was the potential to get a grant. It’s not that we’re in it for the money, it’s just that we’re busy.”

Low-Risk Opportunities to Test the Waters
Partnerships don’t need to be intensive or long-term to have utility. According to Rafi Santo of Hive Research Lab, lighter-touch partnerships are often undervalued, “but they can provide organizations with a safe context for investigating potential partners.” When one group provides another with space, supplies, or advice, it can lay the groundwork—or not—for deeper collaboration down the road.

Self-Selected Partners
Funders have a bird’s-eye view of the field. This makes us well-equipped to connect nonprofit organizations, but it can also tempt us to force collaboration from the top down. A better approach: Bring prospective partners together, but trust their judgement about if and how their priorities align.

For more about collaboration, click for the second part of this series.

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