The government and the non-profit sector are engaged in a wide array of relationships spanning from cooperative to adversarial. However, the connection is vital to the successful advancement of the public good. Many social welfare non-profits are dependent upon the public sector for funding; the government is dependent on the non-profit sector to provide services to its constituents. This mutually dependent and beneficial relationship has grown beyond “vendorship.” The public and non-profit sectors have an interdependent relationship whereby they rely on each other to provide services, and collaboratively address social problems, understanding the successful elements of a public-non-profit collaborative relationship is a high priority.
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Non-profit managers enter into collaborations to advance the mission of the organization, build organizational capacity, increase legitimacy within the community and advocate for policy changes (The Aspen Institute, 2002; Collins & Gerlack, 2019; Never & de Leon, 2014). Some non-profit leaders have expressed concerns with entering into collaborative relationships with the government sector due to lack of control or a loss of decision making (Collins & Gerlack, 2019). As non-profit agencies enter into collaborative processes, they must balance the risk of participation against the potential gains; with increased resource pressures on both sectors, cooperation and collaboration makes sense when goals are aligned (Collins & Gerlack, 2019). With the increased need to collaborate and pool resources across sectors, it is essential to evaluate the critical factors needed to ensure successful partnerships. Bryson et al. (2006) defines cross-sector collaboration as “the linking or sharing of information, resources, activities, and capabilities by organizations to achieve an outcome that could not be achieved by the organizations separately” (p.44).
Together, non-profit managers and government leaders can produce meaningful results and tackle complex social problems by leveraging a collaborative relationship built on leadership, trust, and accountability; as a result of collaborative processes, non-profit organizations create an opportunity to enhance organizational capacity and solve complex social problems.
Collaborative leadership is responsible for ensuring that the structural design elements of the informal and formal processes build collaborative advantage, manage inequalities, and nurture stakeholder relationships. Leadership is generally viewed as a critical factor in engaging stakeholders and guiding them through the challenges and benefits of the collaborative process (Ansell and Gash, 2007; Huxham and Vangen, 2000; Vangen and Huxham, 2003; Renade and Hudson, 2003).
Productive public-non-profit collaborations are dependent on dynamic leaders with a shared vision or a common agenda. As noted by Worth (2017), even high-performing non-profits are limited in their ability to influence change and address complex social problems without collective action across sectors. Public and non-profit leaders who utilize facilitated leadership in a network approach with stakeholders are in a position to influence change and advance towards the collaborative advantage. Huxham (2003) provides the argument, in order to gain advantage from the collaboration, “something has to be achieved that could not have been attained by any of the organizations acting alone” (p. 403). Effective leadership establishes the framework for which collaborative advantage can be achieved.
If we consider leadership as the process by which things happen (Huxham 2003, Vangen and Huxham, 2003), then the lack of leadership must be considered as an element when public-non-profit collaborative efforts fail to meet the intended outcomes. In order to not lose the collaborative advantage, non-profit leaders and collaborative partners will need to be mindful of hidden agendas (Huxham, 2000).
A collective approach to leadership where more than one agency or member holds the responsibility may help manage the collaborative inertia by balancing the individual or agency motivations and distributing available discretion across the members. Collaborative inertia is the process of slow output from collaborative efforts, or when successes are gained, it is done so through what might be described as a painful and challenging process (Huxham, 2003). A Cross-sector leadership model, whereby a public sector leader and non-profit leader, equally share responsibility may support advancing the collaborative effort and reducing inequalities and power imbalances. As agencies enter into a collaborative relationship, balancing and addressing inequalities through both formal and informal structures may support the advancement of the collaborative mission. Private-non-profit collaborations are more likely to succeed when resources and strategies are identified to address power differences (Bryson et al., 2006). Inequalities may surface when considering funding resources or in situations where programmatic or recipient knowledge is needed to identify a solution effectively. Inequalities can be a source of mistrust and disrupt productive collaborations (Bryson et al., 2006). Non-profit leaders may find that negotiating and balancing inequalities are best achieved through developing meaningful relationships.
Leaders need to put forth an effort to build and maintain relationships using social or relational mechanisms to manage their collaborations in addition to the formal structures and processes (Peng, Liao, & Lu., 2020). As my former director would say, the real work happens outside of the formal meeting; it takes place over coffee, breakfast, and lunches (J. Drendel, personal communication, September 2019). These are the opportunities for managers to build trust, nurture relationships, and have honest communication. The nurturing process must be continual; the trust-building loop is fragile, partners will change, priorities shift, and these factors will disrupt the collaborative relationships (Huxham, 2003). Leadership is essential in the formation of an inclusive process where stakeholders are motivated to participate. Effective leadership sets the stage for trust-building among stakeholders.
Trust may be the most critical element of the public-non-profit collaboration, as a lack of trust among stakeholders can have the most significant impact on the outcome. Bryson et al. (2006) describes trust as both the lubricant and the glue; trust facilitates the work of the collaboration and holds the collaborative together. Trust levels among the stakeholders are influenced by the available discretion and commitment to the process. Shared discretion is the defining element of successful public-non-profit collaborations; stakeholders must have a choice over defining the goals, methods for accomplishment, and innovation (Donahue and Zeckhauser, 2011). Shared purpose and trust-building require meaningful compromise and the ability to see the perspective of others (Huxham, 2000). Non-profit leaders need to balance perspective taking with the responsibility to remain focused on the activities and efforts aimed towards advancing the mission of the organization. The leadership of collaborative systems must demonstrate a sufficient balance of holding on to the knowledge and skills while simultaneously letting go, trusting in the stakeholders’ ability to discover and develop meaningful solutions (Bailey and Koney, 1996). Through the process of shared discretion, stakeholders build trust and develop a stronger commitment to the process.
Building an inclusive process where members are genuinely able to participate, builds toward stakeholder commitment (Ansell and Gash, 2007; Peng et al., 2020). “Trust is critical because why would you share responsibility with people you don’t trust?” (Ansell and Gash, p.560). The establishment of a trusting partnership creates an environment for sharing knowledge, information, and resources as well as building organizational capacity. A commitment to the process is reliant on the presence of trust, stakeholders must hold a high level of confidence in the negotiation procedures and that individuals enter into the collaboration in good faith and transparency (Ansell and Gash, 2007). Failure to achieve trust among the stakeholders stagnates the collaborative effort, whereas collaborations with high levels of trust may demonstrate higher levels of creativity and efficiency. If the participants fail to establish trust, discretion will be held tighter, thereby reducing stakeholder commitment. Environments with higher levels of trust, resulting in shared discretion, increases individual commitment to the process. As such, these efforts have the highest potential for a positive impact on the problem at hand, although outcomes must be evaluated to determine if the intended goals have been achieved.
Collaborators have a responsibility to monitor and assess the effectiveness of progress and evaluate outcomes and recognize failures; doing so provides a layer of accountability to the collaborative partnerships, donors, and the public. Public-non-profit collaborations are more likely to create public value when they are engaged in a system of accountability. Evaluation of outcomes and outputs provides an opportunity for stakeholders to revisit the overall purpose and sets forth criteria for assessing the collaboration ability to achieve its mission (Baily and Koney, 1996). As discussed by Longoria (2005), agencies must give the same volume of attention to data-informed evaluations to monitor outcomes as they do to the enthusiasm of the collaborative process itself. The resilience of the collaboration may be rooted in the collaborative partner's ability to identify failure and successes (Bryson et al., 2006). Cross-sector collaborations build legitimacy and generate public value through the data-driven decision making and evaluation methods.
The lasting impact of public-non-profit collaborations may be achieved through the use of strategic planning and strategic management processes. Additionally, non-profit leaders should examine internal strategic plans to ensure alignment with organizational missions, goals, and values. A collaborative strategic management framework must consider the specific context and environment; creating strategies is not a one size fits all approach. Leaders need to draw on their experiences, knowledge, and technical expertise in the approach to strategic management, planning, and implementation. Effective strategic planning is a collective achievement that leverages the expertise, skills, and abilities of teams, champions, sponsors, and task forces. This shared approach to planning must be accompanied by thoughtful reflection and deliberation and a willingness to change course or modify based on the needs of the collaborative partnerships. Implementing a data-informed strategic planning process within the collaborative relationship supports the development of shared accountability.
Accountability is a complex issue for public-non-profit collaborations as there may not be a clear identification as to whom the collaborative is accountable to and for what. The development of formal agreements provides structure to the collaboration and a framework for accountability. Peng et al. (2020) found that having formal agreements to govern collaborative relationships was positively associated with non-profit commitment. Formal agreements also helped to support sustained collaborations as they serve as protection for participating agencies (Peng et al., 2020). Formal agreements provide an opportunity to outline the collaborative's strategic plan, governance, shared outcomes, and commitment to data-driven decision making.
Strong leadership, trust, and use of data to inform decisions, contribute to long-term public-non-profit collaborative success. This essay established that together, non-profit managers and government leaders can produce meaningful results and tackle complex social problems by leveraging a collaborative relationship built on leadership, trust, and accountability. However, non-profit leaders should continuously assess the value of collaborative relationships and collaborative efforts.
Collaborations are not cost-free endeavors (Collins & Gerlack, 2019). Collaborative relationships are particularly costly to non-profit organizations when considering employee time and the resources needed to maintain trusting relationships, to facilitate and coordinate collaborative efforts, and to evaluate outcomes and outputs. There is also a need for sufficient time to evaluate design needs and a recognition of internal and external factors that continually influence the relationships.
Each collaborative partner brings their own organizational culture, which may not align with the collaborative goals, "building a collaborative culture and identity takes time and requires a realistic appraisal of the current state of commitment and readiness to change of partnership members" (Ranade and Hudson, p.44). Non-profit leaders must also recognize the limitations of replicating effective design across jurisdictions and groups, given the dependency on the relationships; each collaborative effort must consider the starting conditions to establish the initial design and governance processes effectively. Collaborative partnerships require a continual cycle of analysis and management; the structure of collaboration must be revised as information is learned, priorities change, and events take place (Donahue and Zeckhauser, 2011). As membership changes occur, collaborative structures must revisit the collective mission and commitment to the process. The structure and design will evolve as collaborations seldom remain static (Huxham and Vangen, 2000). A recognition that static structures invite opportunism, systems hold a responsibility to evaluate processes and modify the design as relationships change (Donahue and Zackhauser, 2011). As Non-profit leaders continue to embrace collaborative relationships as a means to pooling resources and solving problems, they will continue to face ongoing challenges in managing the design evolution in response to stakeholder relationships. However, the challenges must be met in order to address complex social problems effectively. Private-non-profit collaborations provide an opportunity to build organizational capacity and produce meaningful results by leveraging a collaborative relationship built on leadership, trust, and accountability.
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