Nonprofit Organizations Increasingly Form Alliances to Achieve Social Impact Goals

In today’s landscape, the intricacy and scale of many social impact challenges demand innovative approaches beyond collaboration between two institutions. As a result, nonprofit organizations are exploring ways to build large-scale alliances and networks. By harnessing the power of multiple organizations, social impact leaders can pool resources and expertise to address systemic issues more effectively.

The Sustained Collaboration Network’s (SCN) report Unlocking the Power of Sustained Collaboration, authored by NNSI’s director Michelle Schumate, sheds light on how several nonprofit entities cooperate for greater impact. According to the report, alliances and networks are defined as when three or more organizations work together to accomplish a common goal. This type of collaboration balances interdependence and autonomy, allowing participating organizations to leverage their collective strengths while fulfilling their individual missions.

However, nonprofits and consultants must carefully navigate the complexities inherent in forming and sustaining alliances. Our blog describes two successful examples of such joint endeavors and provides key lessons for social impact leaders.

Case Study 1: Philanthropy California

In May 2014, Northern California Grantmakers (NCG), Catalyst of San Diego & Imperial Counties (formerly Catalyst), and Southern California Grantmakers (SCG) began discussions regarding enhanced collaboration. They decided to form a steering committee consisting of the CEO and two board members from each organization. After meticulous planning with the help of external consultants, NCG, Catalyst, and SCG announced the founding of Philanthropy California in 2017. The alliance initially had five priority areas, from ensuring staff efficiency in operations to supporting members’ public policy initiatives. Almost immediately, Philanthropy California began work on funding the census and redistricting, which caught the attention of a big funder in the state who asked them to manage a pooled fund of $2.8 million. 

Despite the early success, the alliance soon faced challenges as two of the three regional CEOs left their roles. While this transition might have put another network at risk, Philanthropy California had made two moves that allowed them to continue their public policy momentum. First, all of the organizations had a formal commitment at the board level. Second, the initial process of developing the alliance included the entire staff. These measures allowed the network to build and maintain trust among all member entities so that they could evolve amidst organizational changes. 

As NCG, Catalyst, and SCG grew individually, it became clear that Philanthropy California could not manage all five priority areas. The alliance shifted its focus to public policy and was committed to adopting an agenda encompassing the entire state. By 2022, Philanthropy California had codified its public policy vision, focusing on key issues such as inclusive democracy, climate change, and economic resilience. The leaders of all three regional associations credit the collaboration with allowing them to address more community needs. One of the positive outcomes of the network was establishing a permanent philanthropy liaison in the Governor’s office, who communicates with the CEOs each month to help elevate the philanthropic perspective. 

Megan Thomas, President & CEO of Catalyst, summarized the role of Philanthropy California today. “We are a stronger voice in the state capital and beyond when we speak with the voice of a statewide coalition of philanthropy.” This advocacy structure demonstrates how philanthropy-serving organizations can make a greater social impact by working together.

Case Study 2: DVBeds

DVBeds is a statewide emergency shelter platform that helps agencies find available beds for domestic violence survivors, beginning in Dallas, Texas, due to a change by the Dallas Police Department. In 2012, the police department implemented the Lethality Assessment Protocol. When an officer was called to a home for a domestic dispute, he or she would conduct a screening and immediately contact a domestic violence shelter if the results were positive. The new policy had an immediate impact, with shelters like The Family Place and Genesis Women’s Shelter seeing “an almost 100% increase in calls.” This influx of calls resulted in almost 8,000 domestic violence victims being turned away annually due to lack of capacity.

Six emergency shelter programs approached the Better Together Fund to conduct a feasibility study. With a grant of about $18,000, they began to explore whether the shelters could work together. Once the idea for DVBeds was developed, leaders received another implementation grant to build out the new technology and create agreements for the network. 

At first glance, DVBeds appeared to be a digital solution to ensure coordination. Indeed, the technology made it easy for users to search for available beds in specific categories (e.g., family units, wheelchair-accessible units). However, the agreements and active participation of the agencies were even more critical. In the Memorandum of Understanding that each agency signed with The Family Place, they agreed to “report accurate uploads of data of open beds as they become available through the use of the application at a predetermined schedule and transfer domestic violence hotline callers to agencies with available bed space and provide warm referral to participating agencies.” 

Even as DVBeds expanded to 29 shelters and 12 non-shelter facilities, daily collaboration remained at the heart of the network. Today, the platform plays an essential role in providing shelter for many victims of domestic violence in Texas. There are over 50,000 logins to the DVBeds annually, meaning that over 50,000 times, agencies in the system log in to find shelter for a survivor or to update their bed availability. This network demonstrates how independent social service agencies, working together, can provide higher quality services and better utilize agencies’ capacity to meet their clients’ needs.

Key Lessons for Alliances and Networks

Lesson 1: Let the goal guide the design

Alliances and networks are designed and configured in many different ways. For example, the client or community experience is at the center of the work in a systems alignment network. Meanwhile, developing deep leadership trust and commitment is crucial to policy and learning networks since both require significant adaptation. 

In smaller networks with multiple goals, there is often a shared coordinating board consisting of the leaders and staff of each member organization. This arrangement allows the group to move nimbly as they take on each initiative. A central organization is usually established in larger networks that primarily operate for systems alignment. This entity serves as the guiding “hub” for the entire network, providing direction and oversight to ensure effective collaboration.

Lesson 2: Acknowledge management dilemmas

By definition, alliances and networks balance the interdependence and autonomy of individual organizations. In extreme cases, tensions between management teams may never reach a resolution. Common management dilemmas for networks include efficiency vs. inclusion, bottom-up vs. top-down decision-making, managing turnover vs. reaching impact, adapting to change vs. scaling what works, and addressing resistance vs. making adjustments. In each of the dilemmas, prioritizing one aspect increases pressure on the other. 

Acknowledging management dilemmas is pivotal for maintaining the resilience and effectiveness of alliances. Rather than viewing these tensions as obstacles, successful networks embrace them as opportunities for growth and adaptation. When management teams are empowered to address dilemmas openly and collaboratively, it fosters a sense of trust and ownership among member organizations.

Lesson 3: Ensure sufficient staffing for the alliance/network

In the long term, with documented positive outcomes, all the alliances and networks in this report created dedicated staff positions. Ultimately, they recognized that a part-time employee was insufficient to maintain the alliance. In many cases, full-time collaboration staff are employees of one of the member organizations, which helps the network operate efficiently without adding incremental payroll costs.

Official staff members, as opposed to part-time or temporary workers, would have a deeper understanding of the joint entity’s dynamics and needs, allowing for more informed decision-making and strategic planning. Investing in dedicated positions, alliances, and networks demonstrates their commitment to long-term sustainability. It reflects a practical approach to resource allocation, prioritizing the operational infrastructure necessary for achieving shared objectives and fostering meaningful collaboration.

If you would like to learn more about Philanthropy California and DVBeds, look out for an upcoming podcast in the Sustained Collaboration Network series that will feature insights from the leaders of both organizations.