Four Considerations for Collaborative Grants

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Daisy Mills and Shannon Rowe

As a land-grant university, NC State is committed to providing students hands-on, highly-engaged learning opportunities AND to providing research that is of direct, practical use to the fields we work in. Philanthropy Journal proudly presents the latest in a series of evidence-based resource articles developed by Dr. Amanda J. Stewart‘s masters level Management of Nonprofit Organizations classes. These articles represent a perfect overlap of engaged learning and practical research.

With about 90% of nonprofits engaging in some form of collaboration, it’s important for nonprofits to understand how to be successful in these partnerships. Nonprofits collaborate for a variety of reasons, including to boost efficiency, increase effectiveness, and solve large social problems in many fields including education, healthcare, and youth and community development. In general, nonprofits enter into collaborative relationships under the premise that each organizations brings its strengths to the table to support a common area, typically a target clientele. Prior to any collaboration, nonprofits need to self-reflect and analyze community problems from different perspectives. Stan Holt, Senior Advisor at Partners for Impact, encourages nonprofits to ask themselves, “What is best for the people we serve?” Collaboratives pose opportunities for diversifying funding sources, often through United Way or a large foundation, but not every problem requires collaboration. However, if the solution requires multiple organizations and impacts a larger community goal, then nonprofits should come to an agreement about the problem before the solutions are created. Holt discusses what nonprofits should consider before approaching a collaborative partnership.

Stan Holt

1) Do not apply for a collaborative grant just to receive funding.

Grant-seeking solely for financial gain indicates a lack of understanding about the purpose of collaborative work. Collaboratives should be viewed as a way to create systemic change with partner peers by taking the perspective of their clients. According to Holt, organizations who believe they alone can fix the problem by simply creating a new program risk losing trust with organizations who operate in the same space. This may not be in the best interest of the community because one organization can simply not solve large social problems. Once organizations have created a common agenda, they open themselves up to the collaborative grant process. One way to create a unified team is to set an “open” meeting format, in which each representative from the nonprofits has an opportunity to share any concerns or updates with the whole group.

2) Nonprofits must be adaptable and invested.

Holt believes that collaboratives work because they place target clientele at the center and then leverage different revenue streams around this to solve issues that this population faces. To put the client at the center, each agency must be adaptable when collaborating and commit time, resources, and staff. For example, staff turnover can create challenges in the partnership, but Holt has found that appointing a coordinator for the collaborative can be critical in aligning the agencies. Joint board meetings also help increase effective communication and facilitate smooth staff transitions. Initially, the time and resources dedicated to a coordinator and joint meetings can appear costly, but over time Holt states that “as partners deepen their connections, they figure out how to work more efficiently as a group”. While these start-up costs may deter some organizations from collaborating, the long-term payoff of effective collaboration makes the initial costs worthwhile. Keeping records of costs, milestones, and outcomes can help the representative from an organization report to stakeholders about how the costs of collaboration are truly producing change over time.

3) Mission alignment is critical.

It’s likely that nonprofits in a collaborative have different mission statements and practices but ultimately are working towards a common goal that must be clarified at the beginning of the process. Nonprofits in a collaborative should always establish goals, objectives, and outcomes, as described in a 2017 Philanthropy Journal article. A clear plan will help define the mission of the collaborative and ensure that each nonprofit organization understands their purpose. The National Council of Nonprofits has found that simply writing down shared goals and defining responsibilities early in the process can manage expectations and reduce surprises later on. Meeting in person and building relationships will also create open lines of communication that will support mission alignment. Receiving funding does not necessarily create a successful partnership, and in fact, funding can be a source of tension if the organizations are not working towards a common goal. One way to test for this mission alignment is to send an anonymous survey to the board members and collaborative representatives to receive feedback about the collaborative.

4) Outcome data are crucial.

Traditional program-level measures of inputs, activities, and outcomes (also known as a logic model) may not fully demonstrate the impact of multiple organizations working collaboratively. Holt states “there is often times a gap between the program outcome data collected at the program level and the community outcome we want to achieve”. Collaboratives must spend time and resources determining how their individual program outcomes link to the greater community issue they are trying to address. The funder and the lead organization could help initiate this conversation among the partner agencies and may have tools for best practices. With multiple organizations, the funder, and clients involved, it is important for the collaborative to show strong performance, but remain accountable to all. One form of accountability is creating a specific website for the collaborative issue, so that there is one space to place articles, infographics, and financial updates for all the organizations involved and for other stakeholders.

Ultimately, collaborative grants possess the capacity to expand the scope of nonprofits by allowing agencies to creatively address issues in their communities through the linkage of resources and the alignment of missions. While collaborative grants are not appropriate for every nonprofit, if organizations dedicate their resources, align their missions, and use data to drive outcomes, they can be successful when collaborating.


Daisy Mills is originally from Atlanta, GA but moved in August of 2017 to attend North Carolina State University in pursuit of a Master’s degree in Public Administration. Her interests include the intersection of local governments and nonprofits, as well as management and leadership within nonprofits.

Shannon Rowe graduated from the Master of Public Administration program at NC State in May 2018. She is passionate about marketing, communications, and development in the public sector, and works as a Development Associate for a North Carolina nonprofit. 

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