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Use collaboration to build capacity with minimal (or no) expense

One way to build capacity, especially for small nonprofits, is to collaborate with other organizations. Building coalitions based on similar missions or geographical proximity can increase efficiencies and promote information sharing, building capacity without incurring significant cost.

In the words of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, "Working together beats working alone."

Get in a collaborative state of mind

Collaboration describes any number of scenarios in which two or more organizations work together toward a common goal while retaining their individual structures and autonomy. Collaborations can be informal arrangements to share information or more strategic alliances with shared decision-making. These arrangements can be time-limited or ongoing.

Common collaboration models for nonprofits include:

  • Shared services and back office support
  • Joint programming, including referral relationships
  • Coalitions that work together to accomplish a shared purpose

No matter the form, the goal of the collaboration is more efficient use of resources for the organizations involved. The right partnerships can also leverage those resources to achieve more than either entity could achieve alone. For example, partnerships may open the door to new forms of fundraising or new sources of income.

Could collaboration work for you?

To answer this question, start with the big picture. Think about your mission and whether working with others would allow you to have a greater impact.

If the answer is yes, then look in your community for like-minded organizations. Learn about their goals and initiatives. How do they compare to yours? Don't eliminate so-called competitors. If they're pursuing similar goals, they could turn out to be strong allies — and sometimes it's worth looking beyond your immediate area of focus.

Consider the example of two providers of children's services in Chicago.Chicago Youth Centers (CYC) delivers services to children from age 3 through their school years, while Family Focus provides services to children from birth to age 3. Faced with shrinking funding, CYC approached Family Focus about partnering. Working together, they've gained:

  • Cost savings. Both organizations save money through joint purchasing, shared use of transportation, shared expenses for facility rental, use of a consolidated preferred vendor program and joint staff training.
  • Enhanced programs. By teaming up, the organizations are able to provide a continuum of care from birth through school years for the community they serve.

Scaling up through collaboration

The Center for Nonprofit Management describes collaborative capacity building as a way to develop a scaled-up organizational model. Instead of scaling up through expansion, collaboration makes use of strategic alliances within communities (sometimes referred to as an "ecosystem" approach).

This approach requires an awareness of the larger landscape in which your nonprofit participates. While this asks quite a bit of nonprofit leaders, rewards for the approach are large — including increased capacity in information sharing and professional networking, plus the ability to avoid redundancies and duplications within a community.

In the words of authors Jennifer Chandler and Kristen Scott Kennedy, "Tapping into existing networks of nonprofits allows organizations to continuously build capacity and grow steadily stronger, often without the need for additional funding."

Chandler and Scott cite numerous examples, including peer-learning groups for nonprofit leaders and staff that cover topics such as evaluating outcomes and financial literacy, collaborative learning tools distributed across networks and joint leadership development programs.

What makes a collaboration successful?

A successful collaboration relies on the following factors:


Successful collaborations share both work and rewards. Leaders must be accountable not only to their own staffs and boards, but also to the entire network. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Rafael López, successful collaborations require leaders who:

  • Have negotiating skills
  • Are able to compromise and see the big picture
  • Are willing to share credit and control
  • Are open to criticism and change

Peer networks

The value of robust peer networks can't be emphasized enough.

Chandler and Kennedy's findings clearly illustrate this: "When you participate in a peer-learning cohort, even with others who do not share your specific job responsibilities, you often hear how other nonprofits approach challenges that your nonprofit may also be struggling with. Seeing the problem from their perspectives can offer another way to surmount barriers. Addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion is a classic example of how learning from others increases effectiveness."


Funders can encourage and support collaborative thinking by providing long-term financial support. This might include funding operating costs or salaries to support collaboration, providing shared office and event space, paying one or more facilitators or so-called network weavers, or hosting networking events.

Consider an example from the Adoption Coalition of Texas, which was founded by several agencies serving foster children. The Austin Community Foundation provided start-up funding, but also committed to continuing support by taking on the coalition's administrative and back-office functions. In supporting this collaborative work, the Austin Community Foundation has effectively improved adoption rates in the state.

Another example is the Community Foundation for Monterey County, which offers courses on facilitation, networking and other skills essential to collaboration. In the U.K., the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation provides funding specifically for organizations preparing for a merger.

Although funding collaborative capacity building may represent something of a break with traditional grantmaking, projects such as these are increasing in popularity as they offer a way for donors to scale up the impact of their donations.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



Stanford Social Innovation Review: Building capacity through networks by Jennifer Chandler and Kristen Scott Kennedy (2016)

The Bridgespan Group: Parternships and collaboration (2015)

Forbes: Nonprofit collaborations: Why teaming up can make sense by Geri Stengel (2013)

LaPiana Consulting: The partnership matrix

Nonprofit Answer Guide: What role does collaboration play in nonprofit management?

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations: Working better together: Building nonprofit collaborative capacity

Charity Commission: Work with other charities (2013)

Charity Commission: Choosing to collaborate: Helping you succeed (2010)



Baltimore-based writer and educator