Getting in the Game: The Work of the Board in Collaboration

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Collaborations and strategic alliances are increasingly important and useful strategies for nonprofit organization success, and this issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly has addressed many facets of the collaboration process. Too often, however, collaborations are developed and implemented without any substantive involvement by the governing boards of the participating organizations. Leaving the board out of the process is never a good idea and, sometimes, this omission can become a critical make-or-break mistake.

Collaborations—substantive, mutually beneficial relationships between organizations to accomplish specific results—exist to provide the collaborators with a strategic or competitive advantage toward the accomplishment of their missions. True collaborations require each organization to place resources at risk in the relationship. It may be money, it may be staff time, maybe even influence or agency credibility. If there is no intensity in the relationship, nothing truly at risk, it is not real collaboration.

When there is true collaboration and the resources of the organization are placed at risk, it is imperative that the board be involved. Moreover, the more significant the value and the risk, the more important it is to have substantive board involvement in both the decision to commit and the follow-through. The issue is almost never whether the board can add value in the collaboration process—it’s more a matter of how.

Boards can add value, for example, by developing new opportunities for collaboration and examining their value relative to “opportunity cost.” They are also a key source of political support and a bridge to the outside world—the constituents, clients, funders, colleagues, and others who have a stake in the success of the organization. Board members can help inform decisions about collaborating as they share their experience, knowledge, opinions, and even their intuition. Lastly, the board always maintains its strategic oversight, ensuring accountability for the process and results achieved.

Once the decision is made to pro-ceed with a particular collaboration, board members are in a position to lend legitimacy and credibility to the decision among the community of stakeholders, while also serving as an “early warning system” monitoring important changes and responses in the stakeholder community.

If all this makes so much sense, why are so many boards “out of the loop” when it comes to collaboration? We see three dynamics at play.

Board fears of being involved. We hear two variations on this theme: (a) We don’t understand this, so let’s stay away from it; and (b) We don’t have the time to get involved, and, if we did, it would just slow things down, so just “keep us posted” and we won’t get in the way. These positions may be rooted in a deeper issue: a fear of accountability for the outcome of collaboration. Of course, there are those who misunderstand their role in governing the organization and think they can remain aloof from thorny issues.

Executive fears of board involvement. Some executives worry about interference or micromanagement. If we invite the board into this process, they explain, board members will not stay at the strategic level—they’ll try to get into the operations of the collaboration. Sometimes, this issue is related to management’s lack of understanding of (or unwillingness to live with) the roles of an effective board.

Executives also worry that involving the board in the collaboration process will slow decisions and progress, and that members’ lack of time will keep them from playing a substantive role even if the organization takes the time to involve them. Further, some contend, board members will not know or understand enough about the implications of a decision to collaborate to make appropriate decisions. Some executives express concern about confidentiality and public relations issues, particularly in the early days of exploratory discussions. They fear that board members, intentionally or by accident, will expose the organization to problematic publicity that could interfere with funding or other significant matters.

A general lack of awareness on the part of board, executive, or both. This too may take two forms: First, both executives and board leaders have told us that they have ignored board involvement because it did not occur to them at the beginning of the process; their sense of the board’s role in the organization did not include such strategic thinking. Alternatively, some wonder, “If involved, what would the board do?” Some executives already have decided to proceed with the collaboration and, thus, there is no board decision role. A worst-case scenario? When no one makes a decision to do anything—they just “fall into it.” It seems like the obvious thing to do, so no one actually assesses the value and cost of engaging in the collaboration.

These reasons all are understandable. They also are short sighted, given the complicated, chaotic, fast-paced world in which modern nonprofit organizations must serve. Successful nonprofits need more. Effective nonprofit boards are involved in the process of successful collaboration for legal, political, and organizational effectiveness reasons. The challenge is to make sure they are involved at the right times and in the right ways to ensure that the board’s involvement adds true value to the organization’s long-term outcomes and success.

Before any specific collaboration is considered—at the time of strategic thinking and planning, as the board works with the staff to articulate the mission, vision, strategic direction and long-term goals of the organization—the possibilities and limitations of joining efforts with other organizations (nonprofit, government, and even for-profit) to enhance the impact and success of the nonprofit’s work should be examined. Before any specific opportunities are explored, the organization will discuss how the board and executive staff should proceed on any future collaboration (including “mandated collaborations”—those “opportunities” that funders and other power brokers sometimes “suggest”). These discussions will clarify when and how the board expects to be brought into the loop, and the respective roles of board and executive leadership as collaborative opportunities are studied.

The board, by mutual advance agreement with the executive, can and should support the collaboration by facilitating the development of peer-to-peer relationships (that is, board members linking with other board members). The board and executive staff must ensure that individual members not become “loose cannons,” creating interference instead of support during the development and maintenance stages of the collaboration.

The board will play two more important roles when a specific collaboration is considered. One is to serve as coach and sounding board to the staff as they explore options, listening, questioning, and providing advice. And second, as the collaboration opportunity becomes serious, the board will ensure “due diligence”—the systematic evaluation of potential partners to ensure that the collaboration will not endanger the financial health of the organization.

Ultimately, the board is responsible for oversight and accountability. This requires regular updates on the status, “health,” and results of the collaboration. The effective board will make certain that the staff has a system in place to monitor and share information about both the process and outcomes associated with the collaboration. And from time to time, the boards of the collaborating organizations should review the merits of the collaboration—its purpose and outcomes—and determine whether it remains in their organizations’ interests to continue.

Collaboration is an increasingly common and important strategy, and it can offer a nonprofit an important strategic or competitive advantage toward accomplishing its mission. But no significant collaboration can be successful for the long term without the substantive involvement of the collaborators’ governing boards. And at its best, the involvement of the board adds unique value that will greatly enhance the value of the collaboration.

Austin, James E. 2000. The Collaboration Challenge: How Nonprofits and Businesses Succeed Through Strategic Alliances. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lang, Andrew S. 1998. Financial Responsibilities of the Nonprofit Board. Washington, DC: National Center for Nonprofit Boards.
McLaughlin, Thomas. 1998. Nonprofit Mergers and Alliances: A Strategic Planning Guide. New York, NY: Wiley.

David Renz is the director of the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership, University of Missouri–Kansas City, and a member of the Nonprofit Quarterly’s editorial advisory board.