Strategy & Risk

The Power of Strategic Collaboration

Published: May 6, 2024

Read Time: 7 minutes

Power of strategic collaboration

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the not-for-profit sector and business seemed to follow well-trodden and demarcated paths. Tackling the tough, insoluble social issues was seen as the NFP remit, and private business just needed to, well, get on with business.

But times have changed.

Yet those pesky, social problems have remained, well, insoluble. Communities and the challenges they face have become more complex, and the solutions needed to address them need to become more innovative. In tight and uncertain fiscal circumstances, NFPs need to find ways to do more with less. At the same time, many businesses are recognising the importance and impact of using their profit for purpose.

If the growing focus of governments on building inclusive communities and of investors and consumers on ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) tells us anything, it’s that driving positive and sustainable social impact is everyone’s business, and the NFP sector can’t and shouldn’t be doing it alone.

We all have a part to play in the ecosystem and collaboration is key.

Importantly, ESG is more than a buzz-acronym. As a framework that helps us understand how organisations manage risks and opportunities related to its three pillars, we can quickly see the benefit of broader collaboration.

In a sense, ESG operates as a platform for NFPs, profits with a purpose, community groups and governments to work together on shared outcomes.

Just as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an urgent call for action by all countries - developed and developing - in a global partnership, we need more alliances between NFPs and business to drive social change.

Whether working to address poverty, promote environmental sustainability, or support vulnerable populations, NFPs are at the vanguard of efforts to create a better future for all Australians.

And it’s hard work.

There’s no doubt the challenges facing the sector are significant, therefore the need for effective collaboration and strategic partnerships has never been greater.

Collaboration and partnerships between vastly disparate organisations, including other NFPs, community organisations, businesses and governments, can create powerful synergies that drive positive impact and amplify the effectiveness of programs and services.

We’re all familiar with the saying, the “sum of its part is greater than the whole”. By working together towards shared objectives, organisations can leverage their unique strengths and resources, address complex challenges, and achieve more than they could on their own.

The benefits of collaboration and partnerships for NFPs are numerous and diverse. Such as:

  • Shared resources and expertise: Collaboration and partnerships allow organisations to pool resources, share expertise, and leverage each other’s strengths. For example, a NFP working to address food insecurity could partner with a community group to provide distribution channels and with a private business to provide funding and logistical support. By sharing resources and expertise, organisations can increase the impact of their programs and services and reach more people in need.

  • Increased reach and impact: Collaboration and partnerships can help organisations reach new audiences and expand their impact. For example, an NFP working to promote environmental sustainability may partner with a private business to develop a green energy program that benefits both the business and the community. By leveraging the resources and reach of the private business, the NFP can significantly expand its impact and drive positive change at scale.

  • Improved sustainability: Collaboration and partnerships can help organisations build more sustainable programs and services. By working together towards shared objectives, we can create programs that are more resilient, adaptable, and responsive to changing circumstances. For example, a NFP working to support youth development may partner with a government agency to develop policies and programs that are more sustainable and have long-term impact.

  • Enhanced advocacy and influence: Collaboration and partnerships can help NFPs amplify their voices and increase their influence. By working together, organisations can pool their expertise and resources to advocate for policies and programs that support their shared objectives. For example, a coalition of NFPs working to address climate change may partner with government agencies and private businesses to develop policy recommendations that promote sustainable practices and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, successful collaboration and partnerships require careful planning, clear communication, and a willingness to work towards shared objectives.

Below are some key factors I suggest could contribute to successful partnership building:

  • Alignment of vision: Successful collaboration and partnerships require a shared vision and a commitment to shared objectives. We need a clear understanding of each other’s goals and values and work towards a common purpose.

  • Clear communication: Effective communication is essential for successful partnership building. We must communicate openly and transparently, share information, and work together to resolve any conflicts or challenges that arise.

  • Trust-building: Just as in personal relationships, collaboration and partnerships require trust and a willingness to work together towards shared objectives. We need to build trust by demonstrating a commitment to shared values, being transparent about our operations and decision-making, and following through on commitments.

  • Collaborative decision-making: Collaboration and partnerships require collaborative decision-making, with all parties having a say in the development of programs and services. We must be willing to listen to each other’s perspectives and work towards solutions that meet everyone’s needs.

  • Mutual benefits: Collaboration and partnerships should provide mutual benefits to all parties involved. Once again, we must ensure the partnership is equitable and all parties are receiving value.

I imagine this sounds like common sense, and while the benefits of collaboration and partnerships are significant, there are also potential challenges and pitfalls we need to be aware of.

When partnering with larger organisations or those with more resources, smaller NFPs can often feel overshadowed or even pushed aside. It’s important for both parties to recognise and acknowledge each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and ensure that decision-making is collaborative and inclusive.

Likewise, misunderstandings or lack of communication can lead to conflicts and delays in achieving shared goals. Regular communication and clear documentation of responsibilities and expectations can help prevent these issues.

Different organisations may have different priorities or objectives, which can cause friction or misalignment in collaborative efforts. It’s important partners have a shared vision and regularly revisit and revise objectives to ensure they align.

In some cases, NFPs face challenges in measuring and reporting on the impact of collaborative efforts. Its important partners establish clear metrics and methods for measuring impact, and regularly report on progress and outcomes.

Collaborative efforts can be resource-intensive and require ongoing investment of time, money, and other resources. Its important partners establish a sustainable framework for collaboration, including funding models and ongoing support structures.

To navigate these challenges and pitfalls, we can adopt several strategies.

As always, building trust is key to successful collaboration. This can involve establishing clear lines of communication, setting clear expectations, and fostering a culture of openness and honesty. Collaborative efforts can be resource-intensive, but by sharing resources we can reduce costs and increase efficiency. This might include sharing staff, facilities, or equipment.

By recognising each other’s strengths and weaknesses, organisations can maximise their impact. This may involve sharing expertise, networks or other resources.

Equally important is establishing clear roles and responsibilities, which can help prevent misunderstandings and conflicts. This can involve creating a shared work plan, outlining key deliverables and timelines, and defining decision-making processes.

And finally, celebrate the wins!

Acknowledging successes, no matter how small, can help build momentum and reinforce the value of collaboration. This can include public recognition of partners, media coverage, or sharing success stories with stakeholders.

By adopting these strategies, NFPs can effectively navigate the challenges and pitfalls of collaborative efforts and achieve shared objectives and create maximum positive impacts for communities.

In conclusion, collaboration and partnerships are powerful tools for us all. By partnering with other organisations, and not just like-minded travellers, we leverage all our collective strengths, resources, and expertise.

By embracing collaboration and partnership opportunities, NFP sector leaders and boards can help build stronger, more connected, and more resilient communities for the future, and maybe help dismantle some of those pesky social problems.

Case Study: Amaze & APM

Established autism advocacy organisation Amaze and NDIS partner in the community APM Communities, recently collaborated to improve service quality and the experience of people with autism who are seeking support through the NDIS.

Amaze is providing support and education for the APM Communities team that will improve their understanding of autistic people, their lived experiences, and the wider autistic community.

The principal focus of the partnership for APM Communities Local Area Coordination (LAC) teams is to enhance their service delivery with these learnings, with the partnership having strong potential to be wider reaching.

In addition, they can more proactively support people living with disability to understand and access the NDIS.

This article was originally published in the Better Boards Conference Magazine 2023

Further Resources

Top Tips For Developing Collaborative Leaders

Why Corporations Need the Not-for-Profit Sector

Scaling Impact Through Cross-Sector Partnerships: A Spotlight on Shared Value


Advisory Board Member
APM Group

Liz has a passionate interest in working with vulnerable people and communities to help them realise their potential. She has been responsible for delivering services both within government and in the private sector and she has professional services background with her recent past role as the Global Industry Lead ( Infrastructure, Government and Healthcare) for KPMG (2021).

Liz’s professional career has concentrated within Health, Ageing and Human Services sectors and she has worked in Australia and a range of countries (United Kingdom, Canada, United States, India, New Zealand and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) and at a global level ( e.g. with the United Nations) with this focus. Her training as a Social Worker has enabled her to develop valuable skills which she applies across all aspects of her work. She has grown multi-million dollar businesses and enjoys being innovative - turning great ideas into practical solutions. She have a strong commercial focus and broad Board experience. Her roles have included CEO Disability and Aged Care at APM, former Deputy Chair of KPMG Australia and serving on the Board of Bridge Housing and Relationships Australia NSW.

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