3 Ways to Increase Community Engagement Through Collaboration
The 21st century is the age of collaboration. There is a general understanding that collaborating around certain issues can make a difference for the clients and communities served, as well as an impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of individual organizations.
However, questions linger regarding how to leverage collaborative relationships to increase support for individual organizations and collaborations. These questions haven’t prevented many organizations from collaborating to some extent; however other organizations wonder how collaboration benefits their organization.
Types of Collaboration
Organizations collaborate in a variety of ways. Some organizations are part of a coalition around a specific topic such homelessness or domestic violence. Members of such coalitions often share similar missions and work together to make a larger impact on the issues they face. They recognize that by working together they can bring about the systemic changes needed to achieve their common mission.
Other collaborations are smaller and less formal but still have the ability to make a difference in a community or around a need. For example, I am part of a local group that meets once a month to discuss current needs in our community. Two months ago, during our luncheon, it was brought to the group’s attention that there was an issue in our community regarding wheelchair accessibility. There were several locations around town that weren’t equipped with ramps, therefore preventing access to some of our citizens. The group decided together to rally volunteers and resources to address this issue. Within one month the group had worked together to get wheelchair ramps built everywhere that had been initially identified. While formal partnerships are not yet part of this group, the participating organizations are already actively collaborating to meet the needs that arise.
Still another type of collaboration is when organizations share operational expenses to save money and increase organizational efficiency. In one community where we work, several of the local arts organizations decided to share office space and many of their back-office functions (accounting and finance, phone service, IT). This allowed each organization to reduce their expenses and as a result enhanced their financial position. It also had the unexpected result of building close relationships between the organizations leading to collaborative projects and fundraising events. The community at-large ended up benefiting from improved programming and a greater offering.
The organizations participating in each of these collaborations all have the opportunity to gain community support through their efforts. Let’s explore 3 ways they can maximize these opportunity:
1. PROMOTE THE IMPACT - As we mentioned above, most nonprofits understand that collaborating around an issue has the potential to increase the impact being made. However, in regards to leveraging this impact to gain community support if you don’t tell them, they won’t know. This means you need to share what’s being done through the collaboration on your website, in your print materials, through social media, and during conversations. Be careful not to overstate your role and be sure to share the spotlight with the others - but promote the impact that’s been achieved.
In the example above of the arts organizations, some of the partners recognized the opportunity this provided to increase community engagement. They demonstrated to new and potential investors that they were good financial stewards and that a larger percentage of their annual budget was allocated to programs and services. They also were also able to show an increase in the satisfaction level with the programming. They marketed this to community members thereby increasing attendance and support .
2. LEVERAGE PARTNER RELATIONSHIPS - Collaborating with other organizations has the potential to open doors to a large number of people in your community. United Way provides a great example of how this can work.
Shortly after graduating college, I worked for an organization that was extremely charitable and promoted this atmosphere to their employees. United Way worked closely with this organization throughout the year to host a number of employee fun days and other events. Through this collaboration the organization received great PR in the local community (with the help of United Way) that enhanced their reputation and ultimately resulted in increased business. On the other hand, United Way was able to build relationships with hundreds of employees and potential supporters. Both organizations considered the relationship a win and both were eager to open doors for the other.
3. BUILD REFERRAL RELATIONSHIPS - When you collaborate with other organizations, especially those with a common mission, you may find that you share a client, donor, or volunteer base or have many of the same contacts. To some this ‘sharing’ may seem more like ‘competing’; however, there is a great benefit to building referral relationships through collaboration. For example, there may be times that you can’t meet a client’s needs or you have reached your maximum capacity. Obviously, it would be beneficial to have some form of client referral network with similar organizations so that the he or she can still get the help they need.
It's also important to build referral relationships with organizations different than yours. In the example above of the group that came together to make the town more handicapped accessible, this is exactly what has happened. By addressing the need for additional accessibility, the partner organizations have built a shared database of qualified, willing volunteers in the community. They also have developed a database of local businesses that are willing to donate supplies and/or employee time to meet community needs. Now, as situations arise they have begun referring volunteers and donors to one another to help overcome the challenges each organization faces. It’s inspirational to see these organizations working together to strengthen the community without regard for who gets the credit.
Collaboration continues to play an important role in meeting the needs of our communities. However, many nonprofits I’ve worked with are still trying to find ways to leverage these collaborations to benefit their individual organizations. It is my hope that these 3 tips will get your wheels turning around ways collaboration can increase your community support. Do you have other ideas for increasing community support through collaboration? Please consider sharing them below.