Big partnerships take effort, but pay off

Collaboration is a popular buzzword these days, but when different sectors work together, do they really get work done?

New research shows that government, corporate, and nonprofit groups face special challenges when partnering but the effort indeed is well worth it — especially if a formal plan is developed to avoid the pitfalls inherent in large collaborations among different sectors.

Kathy Babiak, assistant professor in the Division of Kinesiology (sport management), studies the interorganizational partnerships sport organizations create. Her recent study, which will be published in the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, looked at 15-20 organizations from different sectors as they worked with a Canadian Sport Center toward the common goal of improving the performance of Canadian Olympic athletes.

"Not a lot of people have looked at this, so there's not much in the way of skills, and experience and knowledge on even how to attempt to do something of this magnitude," Babiak says of the collaboration she examined.

There's quite a bit of research on two groups working as partners, she says, but there has been very little study of multiple groups from different sectors addressing a common problem. Such partnerships pose special problems because each group has its own working style, which presents organizational, structural and strategic challenges.

For instance, nonprofits tend to be much more collaborative and inclusive than corporate bodies, which means consensus is needed for decisions, and this can take much longer than when, say, a CEO simply takes action. This causes frustration for all parties on both sides, she says.

Babiak also found problems with oversight and management, as well as hammering out cohesive strategies to deliver the programs that resulted from the collaboration — particularly when powerful partners such as government agencies are involved. In addition, the central organization had a tough time monitoring the different partnerships that formed within the groups, she says.

"You do need a formal plan," she says. "It's fundamental to really set out beforehand what each group will do and the expectations each group has of the partnership." But, she added, it's important to keep the plan flexible enough to account for unforeseen circumstances if they arise.

Babiak suggested that organizations involved in multiple cross sector partnerships might benefit by hiring staff who have experience in working with the different sectors involved, or, by providing staff with partnership training on how to manage relationships across sectors, she says.

"They take a lot of time and energy to maintain, but (collaborations across sectors) bring together skills, expertise, and resources from completely different areas," Babiak says. "So, you can solve problems in ways you might never have thought of outside the collaboration."