Nonprofit Collaboration Is Essential Now—How Funders Can Play a Role - Exponent Philanthropy
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Nonprofit Collaboration Is Essential Now—How Funders Can Play a Role

These unprecedented times require new ways of working together. Nonprofits’ services are needed more than ever. But there are fewer resources to support them.

Organizations have already lost significant revenue streams from cancelled fundraisers and lost earned income. The number of households that give was decreasing before the pandemic hit, says the 2019 Giving USA report. And individual giving has declined an additional 6% in the first quarter of the year, according to the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Government funding, especially at the state and local levels, is going to be drastically reduced. And with this decrease in resources, nonprofits are having to cut staff and programs.

Johns Hopkins University estimates that 13% of the American nonprofit workforce has already been laid off. And some organizations have had to shut their doors.

To ensure the crucial work of nonprofits continues, even with less staff, fewer programs, and organizations closing, we as funders need to be smarter, more efficient, and impactful. We must expand alliances, partnerships, and collaboration. And this must happen between nonprofits and funders, along with the public and private sectors. We can no longer stay siloed in our organizations or sectors to solve problems.

The variety of options for collaboration include: coalitions, collective impact initiatives, joint programming, and shared back office services, as well as more sustained partnerships like joint ventures, mergers, and acquisitions.

Collaboration offers many benefits, including:

  • Improved information and resource sharing
  • Coordination rather than duplication of efforts
  • Amplification of outreach and messaging
  • Ability to serve more people and new geographies
  • Increased continuity and quality of programs and services
  • Greater economies of scale
  • Better staff retention
  • Increased ROI

68% of nonprofits plan to collaborate (formally or informally) with other nonprofits over the coming year, says the Nonprofit Finance Fund. Yet most nonprofits struggle to find the time, resources, and funding to make collaboration effective or successful.

Funders can play a crucial role in promoting collaboration and ensuring the success of strategic partnerships, including:

  • Providing flexible, risk-tolerant funding that allows for complex, organizational collaborations to be assessed and implemented. Funders are increasingly pooling funds and technical support resources to help nonprofits pursue a range of strategic partnerships. See the Sustained Collaboration Network and Lodestar Foundation.
  • Helping normalize collaboration by asking nonprofits how they are partnering with others and providing information on how strategic partnerships can be implemented. For instance, hosting a session to raise awareness and educate nonprofits about the different kinds of merger strategies and how mergers can be used to achieve mission and increase impact.
  • Connecting organizations when you see opportunities for partnerships. There may even be opportunities to forge connections between nonprofits across your portfolios.
  • Convening stakeholders and bringing together people and organizations that wouldn’t normally talk to one another.
  • Serving as the backbone coordinator or a facilitator of a collaborative effort, so as not to “add one more thing” to a nonprofit’s plate, providing administrative support while allowing the collaborative to steer the work.
  • Providing shared back office space or services or serving as a fiscal sponsor.
  • Being a sustainer. When the going gets tough, help keep the partnership going, both with resources and emotional support.

While funders should never impose or dictate collaborations or sustained partnerships, they can help nonprofits see their value and support their successful implementation. In this context of limited resources and urgent challenges, now is the time to ask:

How are we like other organizations?

How do we complement each other?

How can we work together to achieve our missions more effectively?

There is a growing demand for nonprofits to work together. Funders can accelerate these opportunities and provide support to ensure they’re successful.

Mollie Bunis joined Strategic Philanthropy, Ltd. in 2004 and is the Managing Director of Philanthropic Services. She brings deep experience working in philanthropy and nonprofits to her role of leading the firm’s client engagements and ensuring impact for our donor partners. As a senior member of the leadership team Mollie contributes to the strategic direction of the company and product and service innovation.

Maureen Johannigman serves as a Senior Advisor at Strategic Philanthropy, Ltd. She brings a deep knowledge of the inner workings of private foundations and non-profits to her role with the firm, particularly around strategy and governance. Maureen has worked closely with organizations in Chicago, IL, Madison, WI and Washington, DC where she has helped strengthen their operational efficiencies and measure their impact through financial analyses, programmatic assessments and community surveys. She has successfully facilitated collaborations between funders, organizations, and local government officials to help achieve systemic change, particularly in the arts and culture, education, youth development and jobs training fields. In addition, she brings a deep commitment to race and gender equity and affordable housing.


  1. Peggy O’Shea

    Excellent article with well laid out useful information. Thank you.

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