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While collaboration across organizations has always existed in one form or another, the need for organizations to engage with others for the pursuit of broad-reaching outcomes in the face of limited resources has increased substantially over the last thirty years. In particular, the non-profit sector has become an invaluable member of collaborative enterprise, with members of these organizations bringing much-needed domain expertise, management acumen, and in-kind resources to the collaborative table. However, despite the vital role that non-profit organizations have played in collaborative activity, little is known about the specific types of resources that non-profits contribute.

Our research on cross-sector collaboration, a term that refers to the joining of governmental, for-profit, and non-profit organizations in collaborative partnerships, explores the questions of resource contributions and other values that non-profits bring to these partnerships, and offers recommendations for how managers of cross-sector collaborations may best facilitate the collaborative’s ability to achieve collective outcomes.

Most studies that examine collaboration do so from the perspective of individual members — that is, researchers investigate the unique characteristics of each person (or organization) to determine patterns of engagement, best practices, and potential managerial alignments. In this study, we used an alternative approach that employed network analysis to uncover these patterns. In addition to studying participants’ individual characteristics, or attributes, we also examined the relationships that existed across organizations. We then used the relational findings to generate whole networks, which allowed us to gain a bird’s eye view of how many network members were present, the connections between individual organizations (for example, whether two participants from different organizations indicated working with each other, and if so, the extent to which they collaborated), and what organizations were situated most centrally in the network (i.e., those organizations with the greatest number of connections to others). Identifying these patterns enabled us to see not only the number of inter-organizational connections that were possible, but more importantly, what organizations contributed to their respective networks to enhance the likelihood of a successful collaborative undertaking.

We found that both for-profit and governmental survey respondents rated their non-profit partners as having the highest level of mission alignment for their collaborative’s work.

Ultimately, we found that non-profit organizations contributed a greater number of in-kind resources (e.g., meeting space), domain expertise, volunteers, community connections, leadership, and advocacy relative to their for-profit and governmental counterparts. We also found that both for-profit and governmental survey respondents rated their non-profit partners as having the highest level of mission alignment for their collaborative’s work. While these findings are important for empirically validating much of what researchers suspected was true of non-profits in collaborative settings, we also hope that they can help inform the decision-making process in the practice of coordinating and implementing collaborative programs, policies, or service delivery.

This study identified the dilemma of how best to manage cross-sector collaborations given what we concluded about each sector’s contributions to such activities. With our findings, it’s our suggestion that leaders or managers need to thoroughly understand what each organization can contribute in order to best leverage limited resources effectively. Additionally, collaborative leaders should emphasize flexibility, facilitation, and shared decision-making responsibilities to ensure that each participant’s unique value is used in the most meaningful way.

Collaborative leaders should emphasize flexibility, facilitation, and shared decision-making responsibilities to ensure that each participant’s unique value is used in the most meaningful way to achieve collective outcomes.

While evidence of a collective effort motivates organizations to engage in collaborative processes, members of networks have articulated their need to identify the value of the partnerships they are creating. More than fifteen years of evaluating networks has led to some valuable lessons: when members can articulate the value of participating in a network, and they are asked to contribute only the minimal amount of time necessary with a defined role, they will stay engaged over a longer period of time. When collaborative leaders think strategically about how to keep network members engaged in valuable relationships (a practice we refer to as Network Leadership) using data to understand perceptions and strategies for resource allocation (through tools like PARTNER), there is demonstrated success at sustaining engagement of network members over a longer period of time.

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ABOUT the Author

Danielle Varda, PhD, is the CEO and co-founder of Visible Network Labs, and Co-Director of the Center on Network Science at the UC-Denver School of Public Affairs. Dr. Varda created the PARTNER Tool for network analysis in 2011 and implemented it with more than 2,500 networks in all 50 states. She has written numerous publications and spoken extensively on topics like network leadership, network evaluation and network analysis. Dr. Varda lives in Arvada, Colorado with her husband and three spirited daughters. Learn more about Dr. Varda and our the rest of our team here.

2019-07-12T16:56:42-06:00

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