By Jeffrey Leiter
In forming networks and coalitions, nonprofits face difficult dilemmas around heterogeneity and inequality.
Heterogeneity refers to differences among the organizations in a coalition or network, and it has real benefits and real costs.
On the benefits side, a nonprofit coalition with a heterogeneous membership can gather more information and less redundant information because its members move in more varied circles.
It is less likely to encounter points of conflict or competition, for example resources the members all need.
And it can present itself as more legitimately representing the public interest instead of a narrow, parochial interest.
Significant costs, however, come with these benefits of heterogeneity.
All else equal, nonprofit networks with substantial differences among their members are harder to coordinate and move in a unified direction.
They encounter difficulty in generating valuable social interaction because people often prefer interactions that are easier, less challenging, that is with folks like themselves.
And they have trouble engendering a shared identity among their members.
Inequality among coalition members in their sizes and resources cuts both ways, as well.
A coalition with one or two very large and well-resourced members may live largely off those members’ wealth.
These large members may so badly want what the collaboration can provide that they are willing to pay virtually the entire cost of the collaboration themselves.
In this situation, the smaller members need to contribute very little but still receive the benefits of the group.
On the other hand, inequality brings real risks to collaborations and networks.
The smaller members become dependent on the larger ones, and their dependence means they must defer to the power of the larger members.
That power can divert the collaboration from its collective goals to the goals of the powerful members.
The smaller members can come to resent the larger ones even when the larger members are paying most of the bills.
Inequality tends to drive wedges into collaborations and to shorten their lives.
The dilemmas of size, heterogeneity and inequality are real and daunting problems that the leaders of nonprofit coalitions and networks should carefully think through.
These dilemmas are not insurmountable.
Nonprofit leaders can strike balances and make choices.
With thoughtful and adept leadership, nonprofit coalitions and networks can change the dilemmas to opportunities and thus strengthen community building.
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Jeffrey Leiter is a professor of sociology at N.C. State University and research director of its Institute for Nonprofits.