As enthusiasm about collective impact grows, technical assistance, conferences, websites, and guidebooks are also on the increase, distilling the process into phases, and bringing experts together to share what they know. The stakes are high: effective collaborations can improve school systems, find housing for the homeless, and reduce neighborhood poverty.

Developing an effective collaboration has a personal component, one that is difficult to script. In our recent evaluation of multi agency collaborations for NeighborWorks® America, we found that having the right partners was an important factor. Those who had previous experience working together and had developed trust and confidence in each other’s work tended to get a smoother start then those joining forces for the first time. They experienced fewer partner disappointments and were better able to gauge partners’ commitments early on, avoiding potential setbacks stemming from differing visions or approaches among participants.

Yet, it is not easy to find these types of matches. A recent Bridgespan article shows that organizations in collaboratives listed “identifying potential partners” as the top barrier to success.1 Those considering joining or starting collaborative efforts want to know that their partners share their vision, are hard working, will bring resources and diversity of experience to the table, and will always come through—financially and operationally.

To find the right relationship means being on the lookout – positioning your organization to be seen as effective and influential, identifying and connecting with potential partner organizations long before you might need them, and getting to know the diverse people and cultures within each organization.

For those engaging in collaborative community-wide improvement efforts  — where understanding who needs to be present to get things done is just as important as selecting known partners — the ability to choose and nurture relationships is not as straightforward.


Take the time to build trust and shared expectations among the larger group. Use a checklist to discuss communication functions, decision-making processes, the consequences of action and inaction, shared fundraising, and anticipated staff time and roles.

Get to know one another, and assess whether the fit will work on a personal level.  Who is on the team will directly influence the pace, sustainability, and ability to make improvements together. When successful, unified collaborations will get results that are much greater than one organization can accomplish on its own.
* “Making Sense of Nonprofit Collaborations”, Alex Neuhoff, Katie Smith Milway, Reilly Kiernan, Josh Grehan, The Bridgespan Group and Lodestar Foundation, December 2014.


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