Community Matters
Barriers to Collaboration
Dr. Patricia A. Clary

The growing population of the United States and an increased need for human services changed the role and expectations of nonprofit organizations in the community. Further, disease, war, economic swings, and natural disasters also brought an opportunity for expanded social services programs through nonprofit organizations. Beginning with President Eisenhower in 1955, policy called for less reliance on the government for goods and services demanded by citizens and more reliance on the private sector. The Public Assistance Amendments of 1962 and 1967 followed Eisenhower’s policy due to the War on Poverty and the Great Society programs of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, which created widespread contracting between government and nongovernmental agencies. Today, there is a White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships within the President’s Executive Office, strengthening the nonprofit sector and its partnership with the federal government.

This series of articles discusses nonprofit organizations’ critical role as the safety net in meeting the community’s needs through various programs and services. Last week we looked at the benefits of collaboration in addressing a community’s economic, social, and environmental challenges and found collaboration equally effective in tackling social and global issues, critical public purposes, sustainability challenges, and wicked problems. In today’s rapidly changing and complex world, collaboration can be a means to shared resources and philanthropic value to achieve outcomes that would otherwise be impossible to accomplish in addressing wicked problems.

Despite its importance, collaboration can be challenging and lead to miscommunication, lack of cooperation, and coordination among collaborative partners. Various barriers that prevent effective collaboration can stem from organizational, technical, cultural, or even personal factors like ego that have the potential to impact participation in a collaborative effort. Competition; fear; transparency; culture; limited resources; unrealistic goals, roles, and responsibilities; organizational culture; and leadership can also be barriers to collaboration. Briefly, let’s look at each of these barriers.

Competition. Competition can lead to a mindset of scarcity where organizations see each other as threats rather than potential partners. Competition for funding, grants, donations, volunteer support, and other resources can create friction and discourage collaboration between organizations, leading to tension and mistrust. This mindset of competition can result in limited sharing of resources, ideas, and information, hindering the potential for collaboration and ultimately reducing the impact of the work of a nonprofit organization.

Fear. Nonprofit organizations may fear losing control over their programs, initiatives, or decision-making processes. The fear factor can be especially true when funders set an expectation that nonprofit organizations have collaborative networks and strategic partners in place before funding. When this occurs, the leadership in the organization can experience a loss of autonomy and direct input into the services provided and collaborative partners. The fear of loss can result in a lack of trust, preventing effective collaboration.

Transparency. Collaboration can require organizational transparency and sharing resources, ideas, operations, intentions, and information to work effectively. However, a lack of transparency can make it difficult for organizations to fully understand each other’s motivations, create confusion and misunderstandings, and pose a significant obstacle to collaboration, as not all organizations want to be transparent.

Limited Resources. Limited resources, including time, money, and personnel, can restrict the collaboration of nonprofit organizations. These constraints can make it difficult for organizations to collaborate as they may be unable to devote the resources necessary to prioritize collaboration. Time is always a challenge for nonprofit organizations in collaboration as planning meetings and collaborative activities require additional time, and limited staffing may be a factor whereby reducing the potential impact of their work.

Unclear Goals, Roles, and Responsibilities. A lack of clearly defined goals, role expectations, and responsibilities among collaborative partners can result in confusion and misalignment among organizations. Without clear goals, roles, and responsibilities, efforts may be duplicated, resources wasted, and the work not as effective as it could be with strategic objectives unmet, whereby unclear goals, roles, and responsibilities become a barrier to collaboration.

Culture. Different organizational cultures, values, and missions can challenge collaboration, making it difficult for organizations to work together effectively. How an organization approaches work can create conflict and tension among collaborative partners. For instance, one organization may prioritize a grassroots approach to solving a program, while another may take a more top-down approach.

Leadership. The leadership style of the convenor of the collaboration can be one of the greatest hindrances to collaboration as a convenor is essential for successful collaborative action.

In summary, competition; fear; transparency; culture; limited resources; unrealistic goals, roles, and responsibilities; organizational culture; and leadership can be barriers to collaboration. As stakeholders, we must learn how to turn these barriers around in the organizations where we lead, work, or volunteer. Here is an exercise in understanding how your organization views collaboration. On a sheet of paper, make three columns. In the first column, write barriers to collaboration; in the second column, write pros; and in the third column, cons. Down the first column, write the barriers to collaboration identified in this article and add others as determined. One by one, fill in the pros and cons from a subjective perspective. If you are working with other organizational stakeholders, compare findings. Next, write three-to-five strategic objectives based on your answers to help your organization become a better collaborative partner. Next week, we will look at the philanthropic value of nonprofit organizations and how funders influence the need for collaboration because community matters.

In Community,
Dr. Pat

Dr. Patricia A. Clary is a syndicated columnist who consults with nonprofit and business sector partnerships that promote strategic community impact agendas to solve complex societal issues through governance, collaboration, and convening leadership. Connect with Dr. Clary, LinkedIn, Facebook PatriciaAClaryPhD, or at ©2023 All Rights Reserved.