Working together: Six of 1, 1/2 a dozen of the other

by Nathan Magel
follow me on Twitter: @nathanmagel

It's the late seventies. The air is filled with Kenny Rogers' gruff warbled yarns and the punchy funks and heart-rending swoons of the Commadores. Lionel Richie (Commadores) and Rogers are plump in their respective pigeonholes. Then, in 1980, "Lady" drops. Putting country music to R&B tracks, these two hairballs found a syrupy benign, and hugely successful denominator, firmly establishing Richie as a cross-genre powerhouse and Rogers as a bellwether of 80s adult contemporary.  

So let's say these guys are nonprofits—what were they doing? Would you call it a cooperative effort? A joint venture? Collaboration? Maybe a partnership? If we were to throw MJ and a few other folks in there for a ditty, does it become a coalition? I'm going to take a cue from Min Chong's post a few weeks ago and, at the risk of exposing some naiveté, share a suspicion: Most of us aren't quite sure. 

There seems to be plenty out there on the merits and potential dangers of groups or organizations working together. And there's plenty out there on the different ways this work can look. But are we doing enough to consistently define and distinguish between these relationships? Consider the following definitions I came across when researching this post:

"A collaboration is a mutually beneficial and well-defined relationship entered into by two or more organizations to achieve common goals."

"A partnership is a relationship involving two plus organizations to increase administrative efficiencies or further missions through shared, transferred or combined resources, services & programs."

If there’s a real difference here, I don’t see it. So, is it okay then for us to use words like “collaboration” and “partnership” interchangeably? I’m arguing no. We work in a sector that some call saturated. There are a number of nonprofits out there working on the same issues, often in very similar ways. Our organizations need language to distinguish themselves and their work to their peers, potential funders, and the community.

We all appreciate the current necessity in organizations working together toward shared interests. And our notions of terms like “collaboration” and “partnership” have propelled a ton of this work within and between sectors. They have become hugely popular, syrupy benign denominators around which we all rally and agree. But in order to continue on any sort of innovative trajectory, I think we need to do a better job in defining how exactly we're working together.

Buzz words are buzz words are buzz words. The more we say them, the more they come to mean. Until, eventually, they don’t mean much at all.

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