A Vocabulary for Partnerships

What is an alliance? What is collaborating? Many people use the words that describe partnership in different ways. The following definitions are part of the common literature for collaboration, meaning that most people use the following words with these definitions in mind:

Partners are two or more organizations that agree to work together in a mutually defined and implemented relationship.

An alliance is a relationship between partners that is formed to benefit the community and strengthen each partner. More complex alliances are more intense; they take more time, more effort, and more commitment.(1)

A system is the universe of services, projects, and programs offered by organizations for a particular set of consumers. A system is made up of organizations.

Cooperation is characterized by informal relationships that exist without any commonly defined mission, structure, or planning effort. Information is shared as needed, and authority is retained by each organization so there is virtually no risk. Resources are separate, as are rewards.

Coordination is characterized by more formal relationships and an understanding of compatible missions. Organizations that coordinate are usually completing some task or project. Everyone agrees that this is a good task to do. Some planning and division of roles are required, and communication channels are established. Authority still rests with the individual organizations, but there is some risk to all participants. Resources are available to participants and rewards are mutually acknowledged.

Collaboration is a mutually beneficial and well-defined relationship entered into by two or more organizations to achieve results they are more likely to achieve together than alone. The organizations believe they are interdependent. Partners agree that each organization has a unique role to play to address the issue. The relationship includes a commitment to mutual relationships and goals; a jointly developed structure and shared responsibility; and sharing of resources and rewards. Partners focus on the way in which the current system can be improved by changing individual organization policies and procedures.

Collaboration is a very intense way of working together while still retaining the separate identities, autonomy, and decision-making authority of the organizations involved. The beauty of collaboration is the acknowledgment that each organization has a separate and special function, a power that it brings to the joint effort. At the same time, each separate organization provides valuable services or products often critical to the health and well-being of their community. When the problems have been addressed, or the system has been improved, the collaboration is over. (2)

Strategic restructuring is a more permanent partnership of two or more organizations that involves a commitment to continue, for the foreseeable future, shared or transferred decision-making power, and some type of formal agreement. In strategic restructuring, organizations might consolidate their administrative functions, or they might jointly launch and manage programs consistent with their missions.

Merger is a strategic restructuring of two or more organizations that involves the integration of all programmatic and administrative functions to increase administrative efficiency and program quality. One or more of the organizations is dissolved during the process, or a completely new merged organization may be created as a result.(3)

(1) Adapted from Linda Hoskins and Emil Angelica, The Fieldstone Nonprofit Guide to Forming Alliances: Working Together to Achieve Mutual Goals (St. Paul, MN: Fieldstone Alliance, Inc. 2005), 14.

(2) adapted from Winer & Ray, The Collaboration Handbook (St. Paul, MN Fieldstone Alliance,1994) and from Mattessich, et al, Collaboration What Makes It Work (St. Paul, MN Fieldstone Alliance,1992)

(3)Adapted from David La Piana, The Nonprofit Mergers Workbook Part 1: The Leader’s Guide to Considering, Negotiating, and Executing a Merger (St. Paul, MN: Fieldstone Alliance, Inc., 2000), 7. For much more detail on the nature of strategic alliances and mergers, please see pages 5 – 10 of that book

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