Friday, April 24, 2009

Collaboration = Innovation

Image via UserVoice at NextSpace in Santa Cruz, CA

Just a little while ago it was all about making every donated or grant dollar count. These days, it's more about making every penny count.

On FaceBook, in meetings, on Twitter, that's what I'm hearing from the small nonprofits. Most of them are hunkered down so far in their financial bunkers that they've forgotten what daylight looks like. And there in the dark, they are still seeking out ways of wringing every possible last drop of good from the budget.

On solutions, one thing I don't hear to often is about how they are collaborating with other small nonprofits. I always get looks of surprise when I suggest it. "But we are in competition with them for the shrinking donations and grants," they say. "Why and how would we collaborate?"

I've got a couple of examples of how collaboration between "competitors" can work. One comes out of my background. I represented the Cultural Council of SC County every year during the County's Payroll Deduction Campaign. Together with reps from United Way SCC, an environmental umbrella group, and a healthcare umbrella group. People from the umbrella groups were always delighted to work with us (doing as many as 4 presentations a day during October), because the vibe was different than in San Jose or San Francisco. We didn't compete; we supported one another. If someone couldn't make one of the meetings, we made their pitch for them and we made it with heart. We knew that people give from their emotions, what they care about. In the end, whatever they gave to whichever group they gave it to, the community would be the beneficiary, and it was the community we served. We all saw an increase in yearly donations over the years before and I believe it was because of the clear respect and affection we reps gave to one another and to the nonprofits we represented.

The second example is from the for profit sector - technology in Santa Cruz. In this great blog post, Jeremy Neuner of NextSpace talks about the the changes that have happened in Santa Cruz tech business because of a willingness of people to come together and work in support of one another to change the business landscape in the community. I subscribe to SC Geeks Google User Group and every day I see emails from these folks asking for and receiving information, leads, and support for their businesses.

Yes, donated dollars are in short supply. But it doesn't have to be all about competition. Find a complementary nonprofit and split the costs of a large ad. Loan out equipment or make meeting space available, or ask for the loan of equipment or meeting spaces - every NP likely has something another needs and only by talking will you find out what. 

The more you look for ways to collaborate with one another, the more innovative the solutions can become  and the better chance that everyone will come through the lean times. The wider the collaboration, the more chance your small nonprofit has of a smoother ride over the rough spots of the economy, now and in the future. And, of course, it's the community that will benefit the most.

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