Friday, July 31, 2009

Collaborations, Part I

One striking element of working in the nonprofit world is the need to work in collaborations. In my previous life as a trial lawyer working in an equal partnership with others was the exception, not the rule. A lawyer may have local counsel in a jurisdiction where he or she has a case, or be local counsel for another, but that’s not a relationship between equals. Someone’s in charge and everybody knows who it is.

The same power relationship normally also exists within a law firm on any particular matter. A partner will be in charge of a case and have one or more associates working for him or her. In a really big case, there may be a junior partner working for a more senior partner, but there is never doubt about who’s calling the shots.

The nonprofit world is very different. I work all the time with people who are my equal in position—leaders of other nonprofits. Sometimes the organizations are larger, sometimes smaller than ours, but we are all equal in dignity. No one is in charge. This isn’t always easy.

I’ve met some people from the for-profit world that imagine that all leaders of nonprofit organizations are selfless and egoless; motivated solely by the desire to do good. Would that it were so!

After a couple of decades of law practice and ten years now on the nonprofit side, my experience is that business people are much easier, on the whole, to deal with than nonprofit leaders. Business is, in its own way, simple. It’s about money. Law suits were about money. Law firms are about money. Anybody can keep score, you just need to count the money. Life could not be simpler.

It’s a lot more complicated on the nonprofit side. Leaders of nonprofits are almost uniformly very capable people; people who could make a lot more money somewhere else, working for a profit. Nonprofit leaders have sacrificed (at least in money) to take their position. They are committed; driven to change the world; and they almost always have a very particular vision of the change they want to implement.

In short, when you deal with nonprofit leaders (except for me of course!) then you are dealing with smart, determined people whose goals and motivations will be completely obscure to you. Worse yet, from my standpoint, those goals and motivations are likely based on spiritual, philosophical or political principals that I might not even understand. In other words, in many nonprofit collaborations, you have to really work hard to understand each other even before you can start working on the problem you’re addressing.

Still, these collaborations are necessary if we’re going to get things done. At least the process is usually educational. How hard it is depends a lot on how the collaboration got started, a topic I’ll come back to after I think about it a little longer.

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