In a recent article in Commentary Magazine, Dr. Jack Wertheimer noted, “Five years ago, during the economic boom, I conducted a series of interviews with some 40 knowledgeable observers of Jewish communal life. The more astute argued that it was only a matter of time before much of the Jewish organizational infrastructure collapsed under its own weight.”
Economics is finally driving a consolidation of organizations and services that was overdue. Now, funders and planners often gravitate toward two words in these times, collaboration and merger. Both have to happen, but when does collaboration make sense?
In this post, I want to define the term “collaboration” and explain when it is and is not a useful strategy. Collaboration is a mutually beneficial and well-defined relationship entered into by two or more organizations to achieve common goals. For example, a synagogue and a Jewish Community Center might collaborate in offering adult Jewish learning or teen educational programs. The purpose of collaboration is to improve the quality, frequency or accessibility of these programs–to provide a better experience for the constituent in some way.
Collaborations can do so because they increase available resources. That happens when the stakeholders in the collaboration have a commitment to mutually beneficial relationships and clearly-defined goals and a jointly-developed structure with shared responsibility, authority and accountability for successful outcomes. Collaborations are limited in scope, dealing with defined populations or issues. Regardless of how clearly-defined they are, if participating stakeholders do not develop trust, they are likely not to work well or last long.
I’ve learned that donors and staff often understand collaboration differently from one another. A donor may really be thinking “merger” when he or she uses the word collaboration, and a staff person may believe that one stakeholder is more “equal” than another in a collaboration. Also, donors may think that collaborations offer greater efficiencies and cost-savings, but that is not usually so, at least at the beginning. As any staff person with experience in collaboration can attest, they often take more time and don’t yield significant cost savings initially, or at all.
Collaborations can be beneficial when thinking about how existing and potential constituents can enjoy greater variety, convenience, accessibility and quality. They can also help strengthen community bonds by enabling friendships among individuals who normally don’t have a chance to meet one another. And, they can spur creativity by bringing together stakeholders with complementary experiences. When these opportunities for collaboration exist, then you know that you have fertile territory to pursue them.
I’ll look at some other organizational strategies for these new economic times. In the meantime, what has your experience been with collaborations? What benefits have you experienced and what challenges have you faced?
Rabbi Hayim Herring