Nonprofit Alliances and Collaboratives – Are There Common Determinants for “Success?”

The old adage that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” seems particularly relevant to the nonprofit field.

Social issues abound. Homelessness, high school drop-out rates and truancy, criminal recidivism, widespread hunger, mental health problems, illiteracy, proliferating challenges faced by seniors, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, unemployment, are just some of the pressing things negatively affecting people in our imperfect world.

Large and small individual nonprofits continually address the issues —- often in very creative and compassionate ways. But because of constrained resources, and a host of other challenges, even the best NPOs can’t meet all the needs, and often do so, only in a fragmented fashion. Massive social ills always seem greater than any one nonprofit’s ability to address them, no matter how robust the NPO’s capacity, how talented their people, and how resilient and passionate their spirit. That is one reason why a new kind of nonprofit collaborative (one that aspires to achieve broader, significant, community-wide progress by allying key NPO’s focusing on uniform problems) has emerged in the last decade.

Much has been written about these successful alliances from California to Kentucky, from Wisconsin to New York, and even offshore. Taking a look at them, there seems to be at least six 6 common characteristics:
1. They commit to long-term involvement. Rather than loosely confederating for short periods to address a single issue, or because of a short-term funding opportunity, those who are achieving long-term success are doing it because they have committed to do it, in a long-lasting way, together.

2. Collaboration leaders have a shared vision and resulting agenda. They reiterate the vision publicly and privately in as many ways as possible. They revisit the agenda, to ensure its relevance, often.

3. Alliance members communicate, a lot. Leadership meets formally multiple times a year, and everyone shares progress, informally, as often as possible. Their dialogue is frequent.

4. Collaboration leaders hold each other accountable, and commit to each other’s success. Their action plans are created in concert; and each organization in the collaboration is held responsible for achieving both the collective goals, and individual organizational goals that match the collective plan.

5. Alliance stakeholders and advisors are diverse. They come from within a sector (like mental health agencies as an example) but also from outside the sector (educational institutions, foundations, other funders, government agencies, and the business world).

6. Finally, successful collaborations use, measure and share individual and collective data. They make decisions about what to measure, and then they measure it, uniformly over time to ascertain if they are making real progress, and what they need to adjust to achieve positive impact. They use that data to align their resources, and determine what works. Then they do what works.

Among ardentCause clients, there are a number of innovative alliances with whom we are working. From them, we have been learning much about the awesome power of collective action. Most of the time, we specifically focus on helping with item #6, on the list above, since our strength is applying technology to ease the burden of data collection, making it more consistent, easy, and effective. We are very honored to engage in this work, and be a small part of each “whole that is greater than its parts” to achieve powerful positive and collaborative community impact now, and in the future.


by Kathleen Norton-Schock
Chief Connections Officer, ardentCause L3C