The cost of internal competition plagues almost every company. But the private sector is by no means the only sector that competes. With limited funding, particularly during the Great Recession and the fledgling Great Recovery, non-profit organizations have increasingly competed for shrinking grant dollars. And while the for-profit sector may regard the non-profit sector as populated by less-competitive do-gooders, competition in the non-profit arena can rival that of private industry.
For private-sector companies, competing in the marketplace furthers objectives, namely to increase revenue and market share. In contrast, non-profit organizations compromise their objectives when they compete with other non-profits that share their mission. The cynical among us might believe that the first goal of some non-profits is preserving themselves to employ administrators and staff and that their service mission is secondary. Let’s assume, though, that the primary goal of most non-profits is to further their mission. In that case, collaboration among non-profits creates far greater value.
Some foundations have developed programs to encourage non-profit organizations to collaborate. The Myelin Repair Foundation, which is working to cure multiple sclerosis, has recruited five principal investigators from different universities. With input from the researchers, MRF developed a Collaborative Research Process, which addresses everything from tools to incentives. You can read more about MRF in my July 16, 2009 post. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funded a collaborative research consortia comprising 165 investigators globally to accelerate HIV Vaccine Development. For both MRF and the Gates Foundation, collaboration is reducing time-to-a-cure.
Foundations are by no means the only funders favoring and, in some cases, insisting on collaboration among non-profits that they support. In some cases, funders use a heavy hand in forcing organizations to share resources or join forces. But ordering people to collaborate misses the point. The most successful non-profit collaborations are those in which non-profits and their funders collaborate to achieve common goals.
This is exactly what’s happening with San Francisco’s Tenderloin Technology Lab, which provides computer and Internet access plus instruction to disadvantaged people looking for jobs. Because most jobs require online applications, people struggling with keeping a roof over their heads are often shut out of the job market. The lab is a collaboration among St. Anthony Foundation, San Francisco Network Ministries and the University of San Francisco. Beginning in 2001, USF was providing computers and other support to the two organizations’ separate computer labs. As demand rose with the economic downturn in 2008, USF collaborated with the two organizations to open a combined Tenderloin Technology Lab. The lab now serves a hundred people a day.
Last Thursday, I dropped into the Tenderloin Tech Lab as the collaborating organizations were unveiling an updated space. Rev. Stephen Privett, a Jesuit priest and president of the University of San Francisco, described the collaboration among UCSF, St. Anthony Foundation and San Francisco Network Ministries as three legs of a stool. “Without the three legs, the stool doesn’t stand. We can get a lot more done together than we can separately.” I chatted with Craig Newmark, founder and customer service representative, of craigslist, which supports the lab. (Yes. Craig’s business card includes both titles.) Craig praised the lab for delivering real results to real people. “One thing you learn doing customer service is what’s real,” he insisted.
Shifting from competing to collaborating can create substantial value for non-profits and the people they serve. “It involves putting down our egos and saying we can do this better,” according to Cissie Bonini, director of programs for St. Anthony Foundation, which began feeding San Francisco’s needy in 1950. And the private sector can take a cue from this non-profit collaboration. When we put our egos aside, we can share more, internally compete less—and create far greater value.