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Collaboration Over Competition: How Working Together with Other Nonprofits Makes a Greater Impact

The nonprofit world is different from the for-profit world in many ways, but one major difference is the idea of “competition,” especially in regards to our specific area of service. It’s easy for people to classify nonprofits with similar missions in the same category and assume they see one another as competitors, but that’s not how we see it. In fact, Nashville Rescue Mission often works side-by-side with other ministries and organizations that serve the homeless and people in poverty to make our efforts even stronger and more impactful. 

In a recent episode of Real Hope, I talked with my friend Mike Curb, a former politician turned record label owner and philanthropist, about the “why” behind the work he and his wife Linda do with the homeless and hurting communities. We talked about a recent effort he initiated toward the beginning of the pandemic. 

Mike reached out to me about a partnership with Chick-Fil-A to feed every homeless person a Chick-Fil-A sandwich every day for 30 days. To do that, we joined hands with several other organizations like Room in the Inn, Second Harvest Food Bank and Safe Haven, and together we provided those meals every day for 30 days. If we had seen those organizations as competitors rather than collaborators, we wouldn’t have reached nearly as many people. 

The way I see it, we’re not in competition with one another. We’re in competition together against homelessness, poverty and hunger. If we work together, we can make a far greater difference.

Overcoming the Scarcity Mindset

When you manage a nonprofit, it’s tempting to get pulled into a mindset of scarcity, anxiously hoarding ideas and initiatives because you’re afraid there’s not enough donors or dollars to go around. It’s certainly an understandable way of thinking. In an article for Convergent Nonprofit Solutions, Tamera Toogood calls this is a “Hunger Games” mindset, after the widely popular young adult book series. (If you haven’t read it, in the dystopian series, the protagonist and several other young people representing different districts are tossed into the wilderness to survive and fight to the death, every person for him or herself.) To be successful in our mission and as an organization, we have to break out of that mindset, she says.

“The secret is to seek collaboration and alliance building in an effort to support a larger vision throughout a cross-section of other nonprofits,” she writes. “Reaching out and supporting one another, partnering to achieve greater impact, and/or creating change together are all ways to rise above the Hunger Games challenges. Becoming community-centric enables a new, fresh way to engage other nonprofits and funders in tackling larger issues.”

Forbes contributor Geri Stengel came to a similar conclusion in looking at the experience of a Chicago nonprofit called Chicago Youth Center, which serves kids age 3 through their school years, being proactive about a downward trend in funding. The organization teamed up with Family Focus, which serves kids from birth through age 3. This helped the organization financially, but it did much more than that.

“Strategic collaborations between nonprofit organizations can have benefits beyond cost savings. By collaborating, CYC and Family Focus expanded their programs, gained access to in-house expertise and became more efficient in the delivery of services,” Stengel writes.

Stepping outside the scarcity mindset by collaborating with other organizations isn’t easy. You’ll have competing ideas, different strengths to parse through and goals to agree on. If you can do it, though, it can make a major difference in your community.

“[Collaborations] require lots of careful planning, open communication, and thoughtful execution, but the rewards are worth it. The first step is to leave the Hunger Games mentality behind. Allow yourself to have soaring aspirations for your organization, a bold vision for your community, and open yourself up to the collaborative opportunities that present themselves,” Toogood says.

Why Nonprofit Collaboration is Especially Crucial During COVID-19

Collaboration between nonprofits might just be a saving grace for many organizations in the wake of the financial impact of COVID-19. Studies show that nonprofits that rely on donations for their operations have seen a major hit this year as a result of the pandemic. In a recent survey of 880 nonprofits worldwide by Charities Aid Foundation America (CAF America), 70 percent of respondents had seen a “significant reduction in the contributions they receive and had to suspend programs involving travel or events.”

“When asked to estimate the likely impact on their bottom lines, 50 percent of the respondents indicated that they foresee a decline of more than 20 percent in contributions within the next 12 months,” the report continues.

This financial impact of the pandemic is clearly significant for most nonprofits, but if we work together, we can overcome this setback and continue our mission.

“Many organizations may find success in navigating the coming challenges related to the pandemic by introducing innovative collaborative strategies,” writes Steven Moore for the Forbes Nonprofit Council. “Right now, our ecosystem faces an unprecedented collection of challenges. In order to successfully navigate the coming months and transition to a period of flourishing, we must work together in innovative and sustainable ways.”

Moore suggests several ways to pursue collaboration, including: sharing space, sharing talent, conducting joint events and promoting each other.

Like we have seen in our Nashville community, organizations serving the homeless in other areas of the country have been called on to work together in response to the pandemic this year. The need is great, and the only way we can take care of our homeless and hurting friends is by joining hands. This even includes working with hospitals, health care organizations and city governments. We all have to be a part of the solution.

In Boston, organizations like the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP), the Pine Street Inn shelter, Boston Medical Center, the Massachusetts Department of Health and federal agencies have all been working closely together to take care of their homeless community. 

“Thanks to what [BHCHP CEO] Barry Bock calls ‘true collaboration’ between mission-focused homeless service providers, the conversations and planning started early on,” writes Jenny Fernandez and Amanda Doyle for Boston Medical Center’s HealthCity news site. According to Bock, “Information sharing is a ‘two-way street’ between community partners. In times of potential crisis, the spirit of collaboration is more important than ever, always keeping the shared goal in mind: putting the guests and patients first.” He also emphasized that collaboration across disciplines has been imperative for bringing these emergency plans to fruition.

I am so thankful that the Nashville community, particularly within the group of nonprofits who serve the homeless and people in poverty, regularly finds ways to work together to make a difference. It’s us against homelessness, not us against other organizations.

Listen the latest episode of Real Hope featuring Mike and Linda Curb on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.