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Gary Bernstein breaks down forging new alliances and the importance of collaborative efforts in challenging times.

Collaboration is one of those catchwords that can refer to a lot of distinctive things. A permanent merger between two parties is perhaps the most intense example, but collaboration also includes simpler efforts such as shorter-term, mutually beneficial programming.

Successful collaboration brings two or more organizations together to work in synergy, in an effort that is “more than the sum of its parts.” That is, if both organizations worked apart, both would serve customers, internal or external, and produce some solutions and outcomes – but not as many, and as well, if both organizations worked together.

With a joint venture, there’s an economy of scale, or sharing of resources, that lowers costs and focuses more of your resources on serving clients and stakeholders. Creating programs, marketing, working with boards and generating revenues are similar challenges for every nonprofit. Consolidating these functions across two or more organizations can lead to a better-quality product, as well as lowering costs.

Over the course of time, and especially during this past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many nonprofit organizations have been forced to eliminate some of their programs, or for some, shutting down their operation. Cuts in central funding have become severe. Corporate, foundation and business support is often provided on the condition that nonprofits become leaner and more business oriented.

For any agency program to be truly successful, your planning committee should explore the idea of collaboration with other like-minded organizations. This includes not only organizations with which you have formal partnerships, but also less formal collaborations and relationships with other service agencies in your community.

Providing outstanding service is challenging. By developing collaborative efforts, you can possibly develop new interagency relationships and expand the resource and support base for the long-term sustainability of your agency programs.

According to Joe Tolan, the former CEO and president of the Metro United Way in Louisville, Kentucky, “Increasingly, funders will expect evidence of collaboration as they make grant decisions for the simple reason that collective impact is almost always greater than individual impact.”

A successful collaborative effort among two or more agencies or program departments calls for a certain equality and mutual respect for each other in the relationship. Community recreation and leisure organizations that are open to developing collaborative efforts may grow more sustainable relationships that leverage, strengthen and amplify the unique assets of both organizations. Herein is an example of why agency staff must have the people skills in developing positive relationships with staff from other organizations.

No JCC or Y can long survive and succeed in advancing its mission while remaining independent of other nonprofits. Nonprofits gain information, political power, and personal and professional support from and in concert with other nonprofits. Thus, close working relationships, forging new alliances and even joint ventures between nonprofit organizations, are a fairly natural occurrence.

Developing a mindset and a willingness to work with other agencies on a collaborative effort could prove to be a solid way to obtain corporate funding and support.

A collaboration of nonprofit agencies with a clear and aligned mission might be more interesting to potential funders of your project or program. Funders often are frustrated when they see overlapping programs, service gaps, turf battles and a lack of coordination among agencies. That is why funding organizations have begun to encourage, and in some cases, demand closer collaboration between nonprofit organizations in return for new or continued funding.

Nonprofit leaders need to think expansively and not just in the delivery of service,” said Tolan. “There needs to be an efficiency of service in the backroom office operations as well. This needs to happen without the nonprofit leader giving up one’s independence or autonomy. Specifically, a nonprofit leader should focus on his core business in providing outstanding programs and service to one’s constituents rather than in areas such as printing and information technology.”

The Jewish Community Alliance (JCA) of Northeastern Pennsylvania currently handles most of the back office and bookkeeping functions of a local Synagogue. The JCA provides the expertise and eliminates the duplication of efforts.

JCCs and Ys can create a competitive advantage when they seek to differentiate themselves from their competition. Best practice dictates to develop products, services and partnerships that are unique and that stand-out from the competition. Forging new alliances with like-minded nonprofits might be an opportunity to do just that – to create something unique for your agency.

A program or service is greatly enhanced by the combined efforts of two nonprofits with complementary strengths. And these kinds of collaborative efforts can be easily adapted within any sports, recreation, leisure or fitness department.

Additionally, partnerships with local hospitals and cardiac rehabilitation programs make a perfect match with the nonprofits onsite exercise, fitness and wellness programs. For example, at the JCA of Northeastern Pennsylvania, we have partnered with Allied Services Integrated Heath System on a massive fundraising effort.

Meeting and often exceeding the needs of your agency’s special and diverse populations can be accomplished by forging new alliances. As another example, consider partnering with the Arthritis Foundation or a similar like-minded agency by offering warm water activities in your indoor therapy pool. Grant makers are very interested in funding these types of collaborative efforts, especially when warm water therapy pools are so attractive and in high demand.

Lastly, Joe Tolan shared this great example. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a sports-minded agency like the Y or a Jewish Community Center partner with a nonprofit that has no elements of sport activity in their program offerings,” he said. “This would prove to be a fertile ground for a potential collaboration. A case in point would be a preschool program for visually impaired children teaming up with the JCC, Y or an equestrian center working hand in hand with an agency that provides services to children with autism and their families.”

In these challenging times, making solid and safe connections, forging new alliances and bringing unexpected groups together can create a real excitement in your agency as well as in your community. It takes creativity, passion and thinking a bit out of the normal way of doing business to make these partnerships work.

Gary Bernstein

Gary Bernstein currently serves as CEO of the Jewish Community Alliance of Northeastern Pennsylvania and an Advisory Board Member of Community Rec Magazine. Gary Bernstein has proudly authored the textbook, "The Fundamentals of Sports Marketing" with Sagamore Publishing and "Nonprofit Sport and Recreation Programs: Principles and Practices of Leadership and Management" by Sentia Publishers. For more information, call 757.667.0293 or email gary.bernstein@nepajca.org.

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