Reflections on Relationship Matters: The Tangled Web of Nonprofit Alliances

Tim Sievers, the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters, began Thursday’s workshop with a startling statement: I can only have 2 or 3 collaborative relationships. He paused, holding up a grant application that asked him to define 30 collaborations. The audience, knowing his involvement in the community, quieted.

The terms we use around nonprofit alliances matter. They matter in defining the depth of the alliance and the breadth of the impact. And, yet, we often bandy about the terms, untethered from their meaning. Sievers corrected that. The terms matter because – when their meanings are commonly understood – we can then use this common language to define the alliance with less misunderstandings and misconceptions.

Sievers introduced a chart to define four major types of nonprofit alliances. Displayed below, and used by permission, is this chart:

Nonprofit Strategic Alliances Defined

As shown, a low commitment and less impact alliance a nonprofit can enter into is a cooperative alliance. This cooperation exists whenever we refer clients to another nonprofit. Other end of the continuum is a merger and/or strategic restructuring. This type of alliance is a complex, legal relationship that might result in – for example – a shared back-office infrastructure or even the combining of two nonprofits. We have seen this with the creation of the Glacier National Park Conservancy from the Glacier National Park Fund and Glacier National Park Association.

In between these two bookends lies coordination and collaboration. To explain the difference between coordination and collaboration, Sievers used the Bike Helmet Rodeo as an example. Big Brothers Big Sisters coordinated with the fire department and other organizations for a Joint Program. The result was this rodeo. The relationship was limited to this joint programming and all parties maintained independence. On the other hand, a collaboration is more formalized. For example, the Flathead Nonprofit Development Partnership exists as a formal collaboration among the Flathead Valley Community College Economic Development and Continuing Education (FVCC); Flathead Community Foundation (FCF); and the Steering Committee of the Flathead Nonprofit Development Partnership (NpDP). These formal relationships are all defined in Memorandums of Understanding. While FVCC and FCF remain independent from each other, and, therefore, not merged, NpDP is not independent. The ongoing work of NpDP only occurs in the context of the alliance.

Is your organization in the process of defining its alliances? Sievers provided two assessment tools:

Montana Nonprofit Association’s Principles and Practices for Strategic Alliances


Benchmarks for Networks, Coalitions and other Cooperative Efforts from the Institute for Conservation Leadership

Going back to Sievers’ opening statement… A collaboration is a deep, intensive alliance. A nonprofit can only have 2 or 3 of these alliances for this type of alliance to be effective. He then contacted the funder. The word collaboration should really have been cooperative. And, indeed, 30 cooperations were easy to define.

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