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Facing partnership overload? The good and bad of our collaboration culture

As nonprofit employees in one of the friendliest states in the nation, we can’t help it—we love collaborating. In most cases, this is a really, really good thing (there’s a reason why “Allied for Action” is the theme of the MCN/MCF conference this year). We solve problems faster and gain unexpected knowledge from the best collaborations. I’m currently part of a multi-organization partnership that is firing on all cylinders, and it’s incredibly motivating.

What makes this collaboration so satisfying?

  • We’ve got clear outcomes and immediate, useful takeaways for all parties. It’s not just about some opaque vision; I implement ideas from the collaboration next-day at my organization.
  • We’re committed and involved. Because we make it a point to subdivide into smaller teams based on interest, there’s none of the “social loafing” that can come from larger groups.
  • We have fun. There is something tremendously energizing about several groups coming together, validating each others’ vision, and challenging themselves to do better. On days when I chat with fellow partners, my work flies by because I am so motivated.

Problem is, sometimes our desire to partner gets the better of us. Sometimes we get together when we really don’t have to. And sometimes that other great trait of Minnesotans rears its ugly head: our inability to say “no.” So how do you know when to pursue collaboration? How do you give and get in a partnership without over committing?

I’ve found three simple guidelines. First, trust your instincts and follow what energizes you. Our work should be revitalizing. A great part about being in the nonprofit world is feeling involved in something larger than yourself—and that’s exactly what the best teams do.

Second? Individual relationships matter above all. If personal relationships fuel your collaborations, chances are you can make the partnership productive despite day-to-day frustrations.

Third and just as important: give yourself permission to leave. If something is unproductive—whether because it’s dysfunctional or because it’s just not something you are able to contribute to— recognize it’s time to come up with an exit strategy. It’s better for you, and for the collaboration, in the long run.

Now, let’s partner—I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this. How do you know when a partnership is going to be productive? And when do you know it’s time to bow out gracefully?


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