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Fieldstone Alliance: Tools You Can Use e-newsletter
Tools You Can Use

Engagement Strategies:
Making the Most of Working Together

General Advice
Engage Other Nonprofits
Engage the Community
Engage Businesses
Engage Government
Engage in Collaboration
Consider a Merger

Other Charts in this Series
20 Emergency Funding Sources for Nonprofits
20 Cost Cutting Ideas for Nonprofits
22 Structural Strategies for Nonprofits


Photo of Sandy Jacobsen and Stephanie JacobsFrom Sandy Jacobsen, Principal Consultant, and Stephanie Jacobs, Consulting Associate, Fieldstone Alliance

IN THIS issue we continue our discussion of the broad spectrum of strategies that nonprofits can use as cushions against economic downturns to meet long-term mission goals. In recent issues we have suggested that you implement strategies in at least three of these four categories:

  • Increasing revenues
  • Decreasing expenses
  • Reviewing structural strategies (modifying the mission of the organization, its internal structure, or its culture)
  • Participating in engagement strategies (collaboration is one type of engagement strategy)

Today, we'll be taking a closer look at engagement strategies. Working together is getting a lot of attention right now as staff look for ways to make the most of their nonprofit's resources. The following chart begin with general advice followed by more specific suggestions on how to work together, from simple engagements all the way up to a merger. This completes our series of charts related to the strategy categories above.

Engagement Strategies for Nonprofits

Idea Opportunities Your First Step
General Advice
1. Communication is key.

We all know that relationships require trust. And trust requires communication.

Communication isn’t just a matter of sending and receiving messages—it's about reaching shared meaning.

Shared meaning happens when all parties have the same understanding as to why each is engaging with the other, to what end, and how deep the involvement will be.

Getting to shared meaning isn’t always easy or obvious. Here's a process that you can use in all your work—including diagnosing a current problem you're having in speaking with or listening to a specific person.

2. Know where you fit in.

Most nonprofits exist in an environment that is at once competitive and collaborative. It is essential to consider how you fit in. Are your offerings true standouts? Can you forge ahead alone and achieve strong results? Or are partnerships the best approach?

Identify potential competitors and partners in your marketplace and learn more about them to see how you fit in. That readies you to assess the unique contribution that only you can make.

See what challenges there are to the role you want to play. This will help you decide whether you would be most effective teaming up, going it alone, or dropping out altogether.

For help, see: Positioning Your Organization for Success

3. Make a culture shift. The United States is experiencing a cultural shift towards more collaboration and partnership. This shift is happening at all levels of organizations in our country, from grassroots organizations to foundations to the State Department. The White House is also taking an approach of more collaboration between the philanthropic sector and government.

Are you more likely to avoid your competitors than find ways to work with them? Does your organization need to make a cultural shift toward being more open to collaboration?

Review the Collaboration Factors Inventory to see if you have what it takes to be a contributing partner to a successful collaboration.

Engage Other Nonprofits
4. Use social networking tools to keep dialogue going. Intermedia Arts held a community forum to address the State of the Arts (SOTA) in Minnesota. To continue the discussion afterward, they started a Facebook page (you may need to log in to view it). They also set up a Delicious account and are tagging web sites with links to articles of interest for SOTA. If you host a community or industry forum, keep the conversation going with social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter. Share resources on social bookmarking tools like Delicious. Post regular updates on your web site. 
5. Consider a joint marketing campaign.

See how three arts organizations struggling to make ends meet joined forces to create a successful marketing/fundraising campaign in Changing Its Tune

Think about your marketing plan for the next six to twelve months. Look for other nonprofits with related communication goals that you could work with to share costs and increase exposure.
6. Join your state nonprofit association. Nonprofit associations provide networking and educational opportunities for their members, and actively champion the sector's cause. For instance, Invest in Minnesota, a project of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, advocates for fair government revenue raising practices. Find your state or regional nonprofit association through the National Council of Nonprofits web site. Find out why your organization should join a state association.
7. Join or form a nonprofit center. More nonprofits are moving in next to each other to save on costs and to share expertise. Recently, Susan G. Komen for the Cure found a deal by joining the “nonprofit village,” an office building purchased by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The NonProfit Centers Network has several resources for organizations interested in joining or forming a nonprofit center.
Engage the Community
8. Know who your constituents are and how to mobilize them. To engage the community, you need a thorough understanding of who is in your community, what they care about, and how you can assist each other. A simple stakeholder analysis will tell you a lot about your constituents and how to involve them in advocating for your cause.

9. Connect with local media to engage the community about issues related to your mission.

The Citizens League collaborates with a popular public radio station called The Current to host Policy and a Pint, community discussions aimed at involving young people in conversations about important policy issues.

Consider hosting a community forum and asking the local media to help you spread the word.

See: Creative Uses of Community Forums.

10. Reengage in your local community. In Better Together: Restoring the American Community, authors Robert D. Putnam and Lewis M. Feldstein suggest a need for an increased sense of community and present case studies of people working together to create positive changes in their communities. Find a community leadership program to enhance your community building skills. The Blandin Foundation’s Community Leadership Program is a nationally recognized model. Check out their three keys to being an effective community leader.
11. Take the long view, building and cultivating long-term relationships. Cultivating people to become donors and supporters of your cause takes time and patience. You need to understand when you need to push and when you need to wait patiently.  Keep the goal in mind like these organizations did in Taking the Long View. A community doesn’t change overnight. Here are 28 factors for successful community building.
12. Engage in creative community building. Creative community building brings together different people and professions to rebuild social, civic, physical, economic, and spiritual fabrics of communities. Not only does it create economic development opportunities within communities, the process engages the cultural and creative energies in the community for greater social impact. Explore ways to tap into local arts and culture to revitalize communities.  In each of these communities, they first determined their goal, whether it was around economic development or social, community development.
Engage Businesses
13. Think of businesses as collaborative partners. Many nonprofits think of for-profits only as potential corporate donors. But, there are different ways businesses can help support your mission. Yes, there are risks, but there are also many benefits.

Determine whether a for-profit collaboration is right for your organization. 

See: Collaborating with a For-Profit: Some Risks but Huge Potential.

14. Recruit corporate volunteers. During these tough economic times, there has been an increase in corporate philanthropy in both dollars and volunteer hours. Use a volunteer matching service to help your organization find corporate volunteers. For instance, the Hands On Network works to set up individuals and corporate volunteers with volunteer opportunities in their areas.
15. Lease empty store front space at a reduced rate. When store fronts stand empty, landlords lose money. To make ends meet, some landlords and realtors are leasing space for a reduced rate or donating vacant store fronts to arts groups. Look for the vacant store fronts in your community and ask the landlord whether they will donate or rent the space for a reduced rate to your nonprofit or a group of nonprofits.
Engage Government
16. Work to shape public policy by encouraging funder involvement.

Too often, the nonprofit community sits silent as powerful and selfish interests shape decisions that impact the lives of the people we struggle daily to help.

Some foundations, whether out of ignorance of the law, fear of taking a stand, or lack of know-how forego the opportunity to take action. The best way to get foundations on board is to educate them about their rights and the importance of their role in shaping public policy.

Pass these articles on to the program officers you work with at private and community foundations and prepare your own organization to get engaged:

Harnessing the Power of Public Policy

Three Ways to Involve Foundations in Public Policy

17. Advocate for policies and laws that benefit the sector and your cause. Many nonprofit organizations rally at the capitol on the same day every year for their causes. For instance, Minnesota Citizens for the Arts coordinate Arts Advocacy Day at the Minnesota State Capitol. Like funders, some nonprofits are still unclear about their legal rights when it comes to shaping policy decisions. The Alliance for Justice has information on lobbying and advocacy for nonprofits and foundations and detailed state lobbying laws for several states.
18. Partner with schools.

From grade schools to grad schools, students can be a resource for volunteering, technical advice, work-study arrangements, and connecting with other resources and institutions.

When the Red River flooded in the Fargo-Moorhead area in March, the entire community came out to help.  Particularly active in the flood preparedness were the local universities and colleges that canceled classes and encouraged students to help.

On the flip side, The Cookie Cart is a nonprofit that collaborates with public schools to provide job training for young people with special needs.

Contact the student activities departments at colleges and universities in your area to talk about student volunteer opportunities. Many also have developed service learning departments, like the Bates College Harward Center for Community Partnerships, for students to get engaged in their community.

Engage in Collaboration
19. Be brave. Get over unfounded fears of collaboration. Organizations spend more time protecting themselves than reaching out and investing in partnerships. Read an example of how some organizations have decided to do away with their fear by Banding Together. If you are still uncertain about collaboration, review the great work and success of the finalists for the Collaboration Prize (see also #22). Awards such as these encourage thoughtful and purposeful engagement between nonprofit organizations.
20. Collaborate to find sustainable ways to deliver services.

The goal is to forge an entirely new way of delivering services, as in this example: Single No More.

Another example is People in Aid, the global network of relief and development agencies committed to good practice in the support and management of their staff.

As always, the first step is to determine what you want to achieve, and whether it is a goal that can be better accomplished by working with other organizations or by working alone. Delivering services in a sustainable way may require partners to deliver to more markets in a more efficient way.
21. Start small.

Begin with a small, simple collaboration and move up. This will build trust and understanding with partners and give you deeper experience with collaboration.

Practical experience, even with small cooperative ventures, can build to more intense collaboration, or even a merger, as shown in Doubling Up.

Decide what intensity of collaboration is necessary and realize that sometimes less is more. If a more intense collaboration is required, the Collaboration Handbook is a great resource for getting started.
Consider a Merger
22. Explore merger possibilities Many people are predicting a boom in nonprofit mergers because of the current economic crisis. While organizations should consider the full range of collaboration options before deciding to merge, there are several good reasons why nonprofits merge.

What started as a fee-for-service arrangement for three art museums in Chattanooga ultimately resulted in a merger as described in the Chronicle of Philanthropy article: Going Forward by Staying Together (subscription required). The merger was so successful, it was a finalist for the Lodestar Foundation's Collaboration Prize (see #19).

Look to the potential whole of the merged organizations. Is it greater than the sum of the two separate organizational parts? If so, merger might be the right option.

For further exploration, see:

The M Word: A Board Member’s Guide to Mergers

The Nonprofit Mergers Workbook Part I: The Leader's Guide to Considering, Negotiating, and Executing a Merger

The Nonprofit Mergers Workbook Part II: Unifying the Organization after a Merger

23. Think about merger as a way to thrive, not just survive.

According to research done by the Bridgespan Group, relatively few nonprofits are using merger strategically to strengthen their effectiveness, spread best practices, and expand reach. Yet the potential for mergers to create real value in the nonprofit sector exists.

If your reason for considering merger is based on a tactical strategy, like streamlining accreditation, also consider whether the merger will make something greater than the sum of the parts.

Read the Bridgespan Group's article, Nonprofit M&A: More Than a Tool for Tough Times. It discusses their research on nonprofit mergers, explores the Child and Family Services (CFS) field, where "market" conditions are especially favorable to combinations; and profiles two nonprofits making the most of acquisitions.

Other examples include:
The Somerset County Blind Center and the Susquehanna Association for the Blind and Vision Impaired

Children’s Home and Family Services

Three Animal Humane Societies in Minnesota

Best regards,

Sandy Jacobsen and Stephanie Jacobs

May 20, 2009


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