Many not-for-profit organizations have discovered there can be strength in numbers. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of collaborations, partnerships and even full-scale mergers in the not-for-profit sector. These joint ventures can conserve resources, help with fundraising and, in many cases, expand the services that each group provides.
However, a partnership can also cause your organization to lose its individual identity (and possibly, the enthusiasm of donors and staffers). And, you may find yourself locked in a downward spiral of spending large amounts of time and money just to make a joint venture work.
Before signing on the dotted line, consult with your not-for-profit advisers about the financial implications of a joint venture. For example, after a merger, how will you handle employees from the two organizations who perform similar jobs but earn very different salaries?
Here are some tips to keep in mind if your organization is considering joining forces with another not-for-profit:
Don’t underestimate the challenge. Whether it’s a simple cooperative project or a complete merger, you should set aside — in your schedule and your budget — the necessary time and money to make the collaboration work. (Instead of diving into long-term commitments, consider cooperating informally on a small project first.)
Identify who is leading the charge. One manager should have dedicated responsibility for the joint project — ideally, a person who understands leading by consensus. Spell out in writing the duties of all employees and volunteers involved in the partnership.
Set crystal-clear goals. While considering any partnership, ask, “Why does this joint project make sense?” In other words, what advantages will the collaboration bring to your organization that you couldn’t achieve on your own? (If you can’t answer this question, that’s a red flag to consider before you proceed.)
Practice constant communication. Employees may be worried about their jobs. Stay in front of rumors and concerns by giving your employees, donors and volunteers a steady stream of information about the partnership — who’s in charge, what the next steps are, and what positive results or challenges have resulted to date. And make the communication a two-way street by encouraging feedback (even if it involves anonymous suggestions).
Set limits on the information and funds you’ll share. Many not-for-profit groups begin joint projects with clear boundaries in mind. As things progress, however, they wind up contributing more assets than they planned. You’ll appreciate having specific limits established in advance. Before a joint project gets underway, it’s critical to examine your privacy statements to make sure you aren’t disclosing any confidential information. Then, decide with your partners the details of sharing membership databases, prospect lists and funds.
Swap people. To maximize cooperation on a joint venture, exchange some not-for-profits trade staffers and volunteers. (Try to exchange people with the same pay scale, job title, and level of experience, if possible.)
It can take as long as three years for merged organizational cultures to feel comfortable together. However, your reward could be increased donations and greater operating efficiencies.